Controversy Erupts Over American Airlines Employee Praying At The Gate

A passenger noticed an American Airlines employee at Washington National airport offering a prayer over the PA system at one of the gates and videotaped it. They sent it to a friend who shared it to twitter with outrage. Although I don’t really see anything wrong with offering a prayer right now, it may even bring some comfort during difficult times.

Naturally twitter responded like twitter to the notion.

Now, Matthew 6:5 says that the purpose of prayer shouldn’t be to put oneself on display, but this isn’t a rejection of public prayer just the motives that some may have (condemning “the hypocrites”).

The employee’s colleagues may appreciate it and some passengers might also. There’s really no reason to be offended. There’s nothing exclusionary about what I saw on the video.

Now, I’m Jewish and I have memories as a child feeling strange walking into a church, like I was doing something wrong. I’m not sure where that feeling came from, though I outgrew it, and I’ve been a part of Catholic weddings. When other groomsman took communion, I simply crossed my arms to indicate to the priest that I wouldn’t take part, but that’s only because I didn’t want to disrespect the ritual as a non-believer. Others taking communion wasn’t a threat to me.

Airports Aren’t Prayer-Free Zones

The first airport chapels in the US were Catholic. They began to take off in the 1950s. The very first in the U.S. was at Boston Logan named “Our Lady of the Airways.” The second was at then-Idlewild (now JFK) in New York, “Our Lady of the Skies.” I often think of airport chapels serving mostly transient passengers but they serve airline and airport employees.

Religious services in airports aren’t limited to chapels. Chaplains pay a role when dead bodies are moved through airports. (People also die at airports, too.) Chaplains are often the ones to notify family members when someone dies inflight. This can happen with some frequency at the biggest hubs.

Airport police will also sometimes refer problems to the airport chaplain as an alternative to arrest. People behave better around religious figures.

Interestingly there’s no chapel in my home airport of Austin. There’s also no designated chapel space at Las Vegas (where they might need one most!), Los Angeles, or Philadelphia. Dallas Fort-Worth has five.

Alaska used to pass out prayer cards with meal trays. After 30 years Alaska Airlines ended the practice in 2012 (they started offering it only in first class in 2006, when they stopped providing meals in coach). The idea originally came from a marketing executive who brought the practice to Alaska from Continental.

But Doesn’t Christian Prayer Exclude Others?

Perhaps the strongest way this was put out on twitter was as follows:

Traveling while Muslim is a challenge in this country and we need to do something about that. I’m also not sure why that means Christian prayer shouldn’t be permitted.

The idea that a prayer from the Quran is foreign to aviation seems odd, every time I departed Etihad from the United States this is what played on the ground:

And more broadly the idea seems to be, why privilege Christianity? In fact, American Airlines has a Jewish employee group – Bridget Blaise-Shamai, who headed the AAdvantage program has served as its sponsor. (Her husband is Jewish, by the way several AAdvantage Presidents have been Jewish including Suzanne Rubin, Maya Leibman the airline’s current CIO, and Rob Friedman the current Chief Commercial Officer at Greyhound).

Airline chapels are interfaith, and some in the U.S. even do have Muslim prayer rooms, here’s one in an Etihad lounge.

Someone, Somewhere Finding Comfort Doesn’t Take Anything Away From You

I guess I have a hard time seeing the harm in an employee taking a moment to offer a prayer. And by the way I’m Jewish, this isn’t defending my own religion.

Half a million people at least have died from Covid, treatments remain limited, maybe we can give people a little bit of extra space right now to find comfort and try to be a little bit less offended that they’re able to.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Marge
    What if he told a joke about Jesus, like “” LOL, I’m my own dad and I knocked up my mom” Would that be ok, too?

  2. I find it creepy. Religion doesn’t belong in commercial businesses — save it for church or private places.

  3. I Find it Creepy that I have to be forced to listen to a prayer when I do not want to. An Airport is a public place not a church, pray room , synagogue, or mosque. If you want to pray then that is fine but do put push it on me. What if a Witch doing their thing at the airport or a Muslim sitting down in pray , both of would freak out the other passengers. So why do I have to hear from Catholics make a pray when they are HOMOPHOBIC bigots .

    This is the United States of America NOT the FIRST CHURCH OF AMERICA.

  4. I think religion is deeply personal and personal. It belongs in the home and in the church, not in public spaces. Whenever religion makes an appearance in a public space there seem always to be an evangelistic dimension to it, and that’s the part that most people find offensive. It becomes a sales pitch.

  5. My preceding comment should have read “private and personal” rather than “personal and personal.” Sloppy proofreading!

  6. I’d rather hear this, which sounds sincere, than “the Centers for Disease Control recommends…” and on and on about washing my hands and staying 6 feet away, constantly reminding me I might die. I agree with you. I don’t know why he was doing this publicly, and suspect he will get in trouble, and maybe he didn’t know it was on? Is that possible, Gary? But people get offended all the time over everything. You are totally right. I travel to other countries, even cities, and religion is overt. I went to PUBLIC school in Orem, UT in the 70s and we read the Bible (and it was not as literature, which is allowed everywhere), but as religion, and taught with Mormon doctrine. I was teased for not being Mormon. My mom didn’t report it. Like really, someone PRAYING FOR COMFORT and people not to die OFFENDS YOU THAT MUCH? That sounds like a major PERSONAL problem. No one is saying this should be the norm every day. Covid isn’t the norm either. And by the way, I wear earbuds for when I get sick of hearing announcements and also music that sometimes is WAY MORE OFFENSIVE than a Christian prayer for comfort. Why am I forced to listen to that? Oh wait, I’m not. I can wear ear buds, go to the restroom, go to a store with different music…

  7. @Suz – what you’ve expressed is part of the problem.

    Religious belief is afforded a massive number of explicit and implicit social protections and there is absolutely no evidence worthy of the name in support of any deity (religious texts and personal experience are not evidence).

    If someone is going to make public statements regarding whatever myths they claim to be true, they should be subject to the same burden of proof as anyone else making such claims – the disciplines of science, law, engineering, business and many others do not tolerate baseless statements accompanied with demands for respect for such statements.

  8. I’m with @Charlie. Whatever your beliefs are, they belong between you and your deity or spiritual advisor, absolutely not the public, and must never be for display purposes like this. Would it be okay to have a prayer to Satan? Some people believe in that.

  9. There is nothing morally wrong with what the person did. It is never wrong to cite the Bible if you have honest intentions. However, I would prefer not to hear religion in a public venue like this. There are too many groups of people traveling who don’t agree and even those who agree may want to keep it private.

    If this was a smaller business like fast food restaurant or furniture store, then it would be a different story. There are plenty of these people can choose from if they don’t care for the religion. But an airport is something else.

    It is unfortunate that there are people who don’t believe christians should be allowed to have their own businesses that serve their own people exclusively. If a Muslim wants to open a cafe just for Muslims, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Let people be free to operate their own establishment as they see fit. No one should be a slave to others.

  10. @Rob:

    “I’d be offended at a moron broadcasting his mythology and expecting it to (1) work and (2) be welcome by me.”

    Dude, I feel the same way about having CNN forced into my ears at the airport every second.

    Whatcha gonna do about that?

    Yes, nothing.

  11. I find the responses and upset about this really laughable. To those that use the secular separation of church & state feign of outrage, what does your dollar say about this?

    “In God We Trust”

    What if this individual has no choice because, “He is a person of faith; born this way.”

    You see, when you open the door for personal beliefs and decisions to be broadcast and, in some cases imposed, acceptable in the workplace (take a knee, I choose to sleep with, I have outdoor plumbing but feel like I should have indoor plumbing etc.) you must accept everything requesting entry. Equality is an opportunity afforded to all and should be without prejudice right?

    Again, check your dollar and then tell me the USA is strictly secular.

    Just my $0.02

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