Bahai News -- The Arizona Republic - New flying fears keep Sky Harbor chaplains active

New flying fears keep Sky Harbor chaplains active

Suzanne Starr/The Arizona Republic

Michael Clancy
The Arizona Republic
May. 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Air travel and accompanying security hassles are becoming so stressful that passengers and flight attendants are turning to God in record numbers.

The chaplains at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport are seeing more than twice as many people as they did two years ago, in part because of heightened anxiety after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The number of "contacts" recorded by Sky Harbor's 32 volunteer chaplains increased to 37,157 in 2002 from 18,469 in 2000, even as the number of total passengers using the airport decreased. That number would be higher yet with more volunteers, said the Rev. Al Young, head chaplain.

This week, the national threat level was raised to "orange," which means the U.S. intelligence community believes there is a high risk of a terrorist attack in the United States.

Volunteers at work

Roving volunteer chaplains at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport have reported a dramatic increase in the number of "contacts" :
2000: 1,770 hours volunteered, 18,469 people contacted.
2001: 2,241 hours, 26,805 contacts.
2002: 2,523 hours, 37,157 contacts.

"The increased level of stress felt by everyone involved with or using air travel means that such needs are always present," said Young, adding that Orange Alert, with its increased security checks, tighter restrictions on passengers and long lines, could generate additional stress for passengers and employees.

"This is an atmosphere in which the public often is inclined to want to speak to a chaplain," said Deborah Osterreicher, spokeswoman for Sky Harbor. "A greater awareness of risk is out there now."

Chaplain programs nationwide are seeing an increase in reported cases of airport anxiety, according to the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains. It comes from passengers concerned about safety as well as employees worried about job security.

Young said that although pilots appear to be reluctant to exhibit anything like anxiety at the airport, flight attendants and especially security screeners have become regular chapel visitors. "They often say the job has been more stressful than they anticipated, so they come in and depressurize," he said.

Other airport personnel, such as ticket agents and shop workers, have been worried about job security as airlines have struggled with an overall decline in flying.

"There are 24,000 employees at the airport, and there are probably as many problems as there are employees," said Ruth Brandy, a volunteer chaplain and member of Sun Lakes United Church of Christ. "They often need somebody to talk to."

Chaplains roam the terminals often looking for passengers exhibiting stress. Only the Goldwater Terminal has a chapel, although Young hopes the other two get them one day, as well.

The chaplain's office also serves as a travelers aid center for the airport, assisting bereaved passengers, helping those stranded at the airport and relocating victims of domestic violence. The aid function distinguishes it from chaplains' offices elsewhere.

One such case involved a disabled victim of domestic abuse who wanted to return to her family in Europe. Young negotiated a flight for her, then raised money to pay for it.

Young said the chaplains avoid proselytizing.

"This is a social service with a religious orientation underlying that," Young said. "This is not an area where evangelizing is appropriate."

The chaplains come from a variety of faiths. Although the corps is overwhelmingly Christian, a Muslim conducts a Friday evening prayer service, a Jewish rabbi serves on the emergency response team, and a member of the Bahai faith walks the terminals.

Some, like Brandy, a native of Switzerland, are not ordained.

"I am only doing what the Lord tells me," Brandy said.

The chaplain's office, which costs about $125,000 a year to operate, is funded by grants and donations. The use of an office and a chapel is the only support from the city.

Contact the reporter at or (602) 444-8550.

©Copyright 2003, The Arizona Republic (AZ, USA)

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