Airport Chapels: Shifting from Denominational to Interfaith (2005)

Approximately fifty years ago, the first airport chapelA chapel is a place of worship, smaller than the sanctuary of a church or synagogue, or in an institutional setting such as a college or hospital. in the United States was built in Boston’s Logan International Airport. This chapel, along with the few others established at this time, was Catholic. Over the past few decades, as the religious landscape of America has changed, so has the orientation of these chapelsA chapel is a place of worship, smaller than the sanctuary of a church or synagogue, or in an institutional setting such as a college or hospital.. Now one can walk into almost any major U.S. airport and expect to find an interfaith space where people of all faiths are welcome to pray and worship. Most significantly, these chapels include features that cater specifically to the needs of Muslim worshippers. These adaptations have been made possible by airport chaplaincies forming their own nonprofit organizations, separate from the government funded transit authorities that run the airports.

History of Airport Chapels in the United States

With the number of passengers visiting major U.S. airports ranging anywhere from five million to 80 million annually, [1] airports are analogous to metropolitanA Metropolitan is the title given to a bishop, used especially in the Orthodox family of churches today. cities. Not only do millions of passengers pass through them on a daily basis, but airports each employ thousands of people. And each of these passengers and employees brings with them the emotional and spiritual needs of the 21st century. The need for airport chapels was first recognized and responded to by Edwin Hogg, an Eastern Airlines employee. He was instrumental in establishing the first known airport chapel in the United States at Boston’s Logan International Airport in 1951.[2] A Catholic chapel, it was named “Our Lady of the Airways.”

Since the 1950s, over 40 chapels have been established in airports across the nation. As time has passed, these chapels have become more inclusive, incorporating not only Christians of all denominations, but also Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, a spattering of chapels opened up at some of the larger airports across the United States at the request of airline passengers, airport employees and area clergyClergy are the body of ordained men (and in some cases women) who are authorized to perform the priestly, pastoral, or rabbinical duties of the community—as distinct from the laity whom they serve.. These included Denver (Colorado), Bush Intercontinental (Texas), Dallas – Forth Worth (Texas) and Sky Harbor (Arizona). In the 1990s, America’s airports saw a huge influx in the establishment of interfaith chapels. Many of the larger airports that already had chapels were modified to accommodate the needs of a more diverse populous, making chapels that previously catered towards Christians hospitable to people of various religious traditions. Smaller airports such as Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Washington Dulles (D.C.), Jacksonville (Florida), Port Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis (Indiana) and Albany (New York) established interfaith chapels at this time. These interfaith chapels are intended for the use of people of all faiths. However, most of what has been incorporated in these new chapels caters specifically to the needs of Muslims.

Issues of ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... and State Regarding Airport Chapels

In this move toward inclusion, airport chaplainsA chaplain is a member of the clergy who serves in a prison, a hospital, a college, or some other institution outside the context of the normal congregational life of a religious community. and transit authorities have had to tread the thin line that separates church and state in this country. Generally speaking, government funded transit authorities have control over airports and their inner workings. To include a space within an airport for a chapel requires some level of collaboration between the chaplainA chaplain is a member of the clergy who serves in a prison, a hospital, a college, or some other institution outside the context of the normal congregational life of a religious community./s offering their services in an airport and the respective transit authority. The level of integration or separation between these two entities directly affects the activities and appearance of interfaith airport chapels.

In both Jacksonville International Airport (Florida) and Albany International Airport (New York), interfaith meditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo... rooms include no religious iconography or paraphernalia (i.e. religious texts, prayer rugsThe prayer area or hall in a masjid (mosque) is called a musalla, although any open and clean space may serve as a musalla., etc.). No religious services are held in these chapels, nor are there any chaplains. The rooms for these chapels were set aside by the corresponding airport authority for the sole purpose of quiet meditation or prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not.. Because airport authorities are funded by their respective cities (i.e. the government), chapels operating under these entities are limited in activity and appearance. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Jacksonville International Airport Chapel in Florida began to offer daily prayersPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. hosted by a BaptistThe Baptist tradition includes a variety of Christian churches which trace their beginnings to the Anabaptist reform movement that rejected infant baptism insisting on the importance of baptizing only those who are able to profess the faith as believers. volunteer chaplain. Three months later, responding to recommendations by the Jacksonville Airport Authority legal council, those services stopped. Not only that, but the office for airport clergy was shut down, volunteer chaplains were denied the use of “airport chaplain” as a title, and the use of fliers and the airport’s public address system by those volunteers was prohibited.[3] The idea behind these sanctions was that while a chapel can exist in the airport, the Jacksonville Airport Authority (a governmental organization) cannot, according to the U.S. constitution, “advance or inhibit religion.”[4] The chapel still exists at Jacksonville Airport, but it is completely devoid of religious iconography, chaplains, religious texts, and services.

In order to allow for more autonomy, many airport chaplaincies have formed their own nonprofit, tax exempt organizations under the IRS 501(c)(3) classification. These organizations allow chaplains to raise money as nonprofit interfaith institutions, entirely separate from their respective Transit Authorities. They may solicit funds from individuals who visit the chapels, as well as religious communities and even businesses in the area. They can then rent space at the airport, hire chaplains, hold religious services, and include religious materials and iconography in their chapels. All of these activities are prohibited among airport chapels supported by government entities.

Examples of Interfaith Airport Chapels

Each of the chapels operating as an independent organization has its own unique way of accommodating the needs of its patrons. In most instances, the ways in which chapels have achieved this goal has changed over time, just as the American population has changed. Below are a few examples of interfaith airport chapels in the United States.

When a group of customs agents from Kennedy International Airport in New York were sent to Logan Airport for training and discovered the chapel, they returned to Kennedy with plans for their own. In 1954, a Catholic chapel, “Our Lady of the Skies” was built in Kennedy International Airport.[5] In 1966, this chapel was joined by a ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... Church (“Christ for the World Chapel”) and a Jewish SynagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... (“International Synagogue”) in what was deemed the “Tri-Faith Chapel Plaza.” Each chapel had its own chaplain and held its own religious services. The plaza was shut down in 1987 due to airport expansion and in its place, a single room functioned temporarily as an interfaith chapel. This space was shared by members and chaplains of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. However, in 2001, the three original chapels were reconstructed and a fourth chapel was added: the interfaith chapel. While the latter is intended for the use of people of all faiths, it mainly caters to the religious needs of Muslims. A 2001 Late Edition article describes the interior of the interfaith chapel: “The floor is covered with Oriental rugs and stocked with copies of the KoranThe word Qur’an literally means “recitation.” Revealed orally to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, he recited it to his followers. These recitations collected in written form are arranged in 114 surahs, generally from longest to shortest. Muslims consi... and Islamic literature. The room is mostly used by Muslim travelers and airport employees.”[6] 50 years ago, there was no place for Muslims to pray at Kennedy International Airport. Now there is a space set aside intended specifically for this purpose.

The interfaith chapel at the Denver International Airport follows the same model as the Kennedy airport with separate chapels for separate faiths. The DIA Interfaith Chapel, Inc., a nonprofit organization, presides over the chapel that was established in 1966 and rebuilt in 1996. The 1996 structure includes two buildings: one for shared use by Christians and Jews, and one for Muslims. It is said to be the first airport chapel in the U.S. to have included a masjidMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit... (a Muslim prayer hall).[7]

The chaplaincy at O’Hare airport in Chicago began in 1960. Men from the predominantly Catholic police and fire departments who were on 24-hour duty at the airport asked a priestA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the... from a local parishA parish is the geographical neighborhood or area served by a church or pastor. to conduct a massMass is a term used in the Roman Catholic Church for the ritual that culminates in the celebration of the Eucharist, the central rite of sharing the consecrated bread and wine in the church community. for them.[8] Eventually this group petitioned the cardinalA cardinal is a high-ranking office in the Roman Catholic Church, conferred by the Pope and involving both ecclesiastical and administrative duties on behalf of the church. The College of Cardinals is charged with the responsibility of electing a new pope... to have a priest as a permanent chaplain at the airport. Space was set aside in the basement of terminal two, and the O’Hare airport chapel was born. In the 1980s, Protestant ministersMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). were granted the request that their own services be held at the chapel. Around 1993, the chapel was moved to the mezzanine area and made into an interfaith chapel. The Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago, an independent nonprofit organization, was formed at this time with an interfaith board to preside over both O’Hare and Midway airport chapels. This board is responsible for overseeing the chapels and approving chaplains who are sent from their respective denominational authorities. Chaplains are, for the most part, volunteers who work part time. One of the major requirements of chaplains is that they not seek to convert those who approach them. The chapel of O’Hare contains chairs, an altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said., a prayer rugThe prayer area or hall in a masjid (mosque) is called a musalla, although any open and clean space may serve as a musalla., a BibleThe Greek term biblia means the “books.” Bible is used in both the Jewish and Christian traditions to refer to the book which gathers together their sacred writings. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—a collection re... and a Qur’an. Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim services are held at the chapel. At Midway, a smaller and newer chapel conducts Catholic and Protestant services.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Interfaith Chapels, Inc. is an organization similar to The Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago in that it presides over the chapels at both major airports in D.C.: Washington Dulles and Washington National. This organization was founded in 1994 by a group of clergy and business professionals in the D.C. area.[9] The Dulles chapel opened in 1998 and holds services for Catholics, ProtestantsProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... and Muslims while the National chapel is scheduled to open soon and will begin with only Catholic and Protestant services.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Interfaith Chaplaincy, another 501(c)(3), was established in 1978 and has four separate chapels in four terminals. Each is its own separate interfaith chapel and each contains prayer rugs for the use of Muslim patrons. The chapel staff includes Catholics, Protestants and one Muslim.

At the Indianapolis International Airport, there is a “small makeshift chapel – an area marked by symbols of IslamIslam in Arabic literally means “submitting” or “submission.” One who submits or surrenders his or her will to God is called a Muslim. While the whole of God’s creation is described as being inherently Muslim, human beings must choose whether to..., ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church., JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol..., BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... and Hinduism“Hindu” was originally a word given by the Greeks, then the Persians, to the land and peoples beyond the Indus or “Sindhu” River. The term “Hinduism” came into common use only in the 19th century to describe a complex and dynamic pattern of li... that reflect the interfaith quality of the airport’s chaplaincy program.”[10] Inside the chapel is an altar for Christian services and a prayer rug for Muslims who come to the chapel to pray. The staff of this chapel includes a rabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat..., two MethodistThe Methodist church is a Protestant communion of churches which began in England with John Wesley (1703-91) and has become a worldwide movement. In the U.S., the United Methodist Church—one of the largest Protestant denominations—is known for its str... ministers, a Catholic priest and a Muslim imamImam means “leader,” particularly the person who leads the daily ritual prayer or, more broadly, to the one who serves as a leader of the community because of his religious learning. In Shi’i Islam, it refers to one of a succession of direct descend....

The chapel at the Sky Harbor International Airport (Phoenix, Arizona) opened in 1988. On the website of the interfaith chapel, the disclaimer reads, “Sky Harbor Interfaith Chaplaincy is not legally affiliated in any way with the City of Phoenix and its operation of Sky Harbor International Airport.”[11] Operating as an independent entity, the Sky Harbor Interfaith Chaplaincy has allowed this interfaith chapel to accommodate the needs of a wide variety of patrons – perhaps more than any other airport chapel in the United States. Their staff includes volunteer chaplains from the Christian, MormonThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called the Mormon Church, was launched by Joseph Smith (1805-44) who discovered a new revelation, the Book of Mormon, which became, along with the Bible, the “latter day” scripture of the new commu..., Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i traditions.[12] Separate services for Catholics, Protestants, Eastern OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. Christians and Muslims are held in this chapel.[13]


According to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, there are now around 140 airport chapels all over the world, with at least 40 in the United States.[14] More and more, these chapels are accommodating people of all faiths. This is especially evident in the inclusion of Muslim prayer services, chaplains, prayer rugs and Qur’ans in various airport chapels. The estimated number of Muslims in the United States ranges from two million to six million.[15] Hindu and Buddhist populations are also on the rise, each numbering over one million. The gradual influx of chapels in U.S. airports, and their catering to members of minority faiths, is indicative of this changing religious composition of America.

The formation of charitable organizations under the IRS classification: 501(c)(3), has made it possible for many airport chapels to cater to the needs of travelers of various faiths, providing them with their own worship spaces, materials and chaplains. Public financial support from individuals, religious communities and businesses has allowed these chapels to flourish.

[1] Airports Council International – North America. “2004 North America Traffic Report: Total Passengers.” (accessed August 22, 2005). Currently available at (Accessed April 29, 2016.)↩︎

[2] International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains. “History and Goals.” (accessed August 19, 2005). Available at (accessed April 29, 2016.)↩︎

[3] Calnan, Christopher. “Airport puts end to prayer services: church-state issue leads to new rules.” Times-Union, December 6, 2001, (accessed August 15, 2005).↩︎

[4] Ibid.↩︎

[5] Kershaw, Sarah. “The Crash of Flight 800: The Chaplains; Kennedy Airport Provides a Sanctuary for Catholics, Protestants and Jews.” New York Times, July 21, 1996. LexisNexis ® academic. (accessed August 19, 2005).↩︎

[6] Kershaw, Sarah. “A Prayer Before Flying; Places to Worship Help Soothe SoulsThe soul is the inner spirit, the life-essence of a person, regarded in many religious traditions as Divine. In the Hindu tradition, the atman or pure consciousness within is understood to be one with Brahman, the ultimate reality that pervades the entire... at an Airport.” Late Edition – Final, October 6, 2001. LexisNexis ® academic. (accessed August 19, 2005).↩︎

[7] Culver, Virginia. “Interfaith chapel at DIA opens with high spirits at dedication.” The Denver Post, January 11, 1996. LexisNexis ® academic. (accessed August 15, 2005).↩︎

[8] All subsequent information regarding O’Hare and Midway airport chapels comes from a phone interview conducted with Fr. Michael Zaniolo, head chaplain of O’Hare Interfaith chapel, on September 12, 2005.↩︎

[9] Baker, Chris. “Airport Chaplain.” The Washington Times, July 8, 2005, (accessed July 18, 2005).↩︎

[10] Shaughnessy, John. “A Wing and a Prayer: As ambassadors of faith, airport chaplains comfort travelers.” Indianapolis Star. Reprinted by Indiana Area of the United Methodist Church, June 15, 2005, (accessed July 18, 2005). Available at (accessed April 29, 2016.)↩︎

[11] City of Phoenix. “Sky Harbor Interfaith Chaplaincy,” (accessed July 18, 2005). Available at (accessed April 29, 2016.)↩︎

[12] International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains. “Phoenix/Sky Harbor,” (accessed July 18, 2005). Available at (accessed April 29, 2016.)↩︎

[13] City of Phoenix. “Sky Harbor Interfaith Chaplaincy.”↩︎

[14] International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains. “History and Goals.”↩︎

[15] The Pluralism Project. “Statistics” (accessed August 22, 2005).↩︎