The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 105 (Suppl.), December 2007



Catholic Airport Ministry

for travellers and workers

in a state of fear of terrorist attacks



Rev. Paschal RYAN

Airport Chaplain,

Heathrow Airport, London, UK



Part One    :  The Historical Background

Part Two   :  The Contemporary Context

Part Three : The Chaplaincy and Challenges we face


Part One: The Historical Background

For the present generation of airport chaplains, terrorism has been part of the political context in which we have grown up. For my part I can remember the parents of my school friends who were posted to Northern Ireland when “The Troubles” re-erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I will always remember the sadness that came over all my fellow seminarians when the brother of one of my friends was killed while posted to Northern Ireland. Yet, at the same time I have to remember that other priests have relatives who fought on the other side in that conflict. For my colleagues from other countries there may well be parallels with the effects of the activities of national movements such as the Red Army Brigades in Germany, “Brigate Rosse” in Italy and, on the international scene, the hijackings and other actions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and other Middle Eastern groups. The vulnerability of aviation to terrorism has been demonstrated time and time again by the hijacking of planes or attacks on airports. From Fiumicino in Italy to Colombo in Sri Lanka, the easy target presented by passengers and planes has proved all too attractive.

In other words, Heathrow, like other international airports, has been in the front line of the struggle between the terrorists and the forces of law and order for some time. Elderly retired pilots and airport personnel may be able to talk nostalgically of the days when one could just park in front of an airport terminal and walk straight through to the plane, hardly pausing on the way to have one’s ticket checked, but those days are long past. For many years now the international traveller by air has been familiar with questions when checking-in baggage, perhaps further questions from security personnel, searches of one’s person and belongings, further checks of travel documents and so on.

The early 1990s saw a ratcheting-up of the tension at Heathrow, when the IRA (Irish Republican Army) launched a series of mortar attacks at Heathrow. When the first attack took place on 9 March 1994, the firing point was identified as a parked vehicle in a hotel car park. Two days later a further attack took place, this time from a camouflaged position dug in a wooded area near the perimeter fence. There was even a third attack, after a further two days, once again from a similar position. The degree of preparation pointed to a sophisticated operation which must have involved reconnaissance, planning, careful execution and a degree of technological skill.

As the movement  towards a politically negotiated peace in Northern Ireland has removed one threat from the scene, so a new one has appeared. While the attacks on “9/11” (11 September 2001), directed at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, involved planes hijacked in America, there were serious effects also at Heathrow.

Many passengers and airline employees identified themselves very strongly with the victims, feeling that it could very easily have been them aboard one of the targeted flights. Thousands of passengers were diverted and many found themselves landing, either far from their intended destination or right back where they had started. The Chaplaincy was involved for a number of days, mainly helping passengers who needed accommodation. What this and the 2004 Tsunami emergency have brought to the forefront is that in the field of international travel, an emergency may take place far from Heathrow and not even involve planes or passengers departing or arriving at this airport, yet at the same time have a direct impact on us. Given the growth of “hub” airports and the developing complexity of the routing of passengers, this is something many of us have experienced.

Closer at home were the terrorist attacks on the London bus and underground transit system in 2005 and the foiled attempts to take explosives on planes in 2006. We are also assured by the media that there have been other attempted or planned attacks on Heathrow which have been averted by the actions of the security services. We are also informed that along with the Houses of Parliament we are well up in the terrorists’ “Top Ten” of significant targets in the United Kingdom.

Part Two : The Contemporary Context

Though airports are often thought of in terms of the buildings, aircraft or number of flights, it is the people with whom airport chaplains are primarily concerned. Whether  ministering to passengers or to staff, we need to consider how the people we are trying to help are affected by what is going on around them.

a) Staff

It is now over ten years since I first started working at Heathrow. Compared to the most experienced members of staff who have been at the airport for thirty or more years, I am still a novice. Nevertheless, I have been around long enough to have noticed some significant changes in the way the airport operates. I am not alone in noticing how much higher the level of stress is among staff, and I am sure this is in part due to the change in the degree of awareness of the level of the terrorist threat. Comparing newspaper reports of the 1994 IRA mortar attacks with reports of contemporary events, one notices a very different tone. The emphasis placed upon the earlier events was that they were exceptional, that life carried on as normal. Much show  was made of allowing a plane carrying the Queen to land only minutes after a terrorist attack and every effort was made to avoid disruption to scheduled flights. Nowadays that sort of bravado is avoided by the authorities in favour of a blanket suspension of flights, and the closure of terminal buildings. This change is noted by staff, and it colours their attitude to the current  crisis.

Every staff member receives a security briefing as part of their induction procedure. In order to receive an airport pass, one has to attend at the ID Centre and be shown a video, in which the threat of terrorism is outlined. The airport arranges further training for its staff, as do the individual companies operating at Heathrow. Obviously the particular training programmes are tailored to the nature of the company business and the role staff members will play in that company. Terrorism is not the only threat to cause concern to managers; they also have to consider the risk of theft or fraud, as well as a myriad of Health and Safety regulations.

We can see that staff, and especially those involved in security, have to be prepared to deal with a vast array of threats. Managers are faced with the difficult task of striking a balance between instructing staff to focus on a particular threat (e.g., a shoe bomber or liquid bombs) and overloading the employees with too many targets and too much information. No human can manage to look in all directions at once. This fact points to the need for intelligence, provided by the police and national security services, which is accurate and up to date. In an ideal world it might be possible to tailor security procedures to meet the perceived threat or threats. A further difficulty is that each time a change in procedures is introduced it takes a few days for staff to adapt, let alone passengers. This in turn adds to feelings of bewilderment, as experienced staff who felt they were on top of their job sometimes find it hard to change procedures at short notice, and perhaps without adequate briefing.

So the chaplain may find himself in the midst of an airport which is in turmoil, as for instance it was in August 2006. That time the cause was a security alert, but in fact similar problems have occurred at Heathrow in each of the last three years. On the other occasions the disruption was due to industrial disputes, but the effects are very similar. While the threat of a terrorist attack is a high profile issue, attracting much media attention, it is only one of the elements which play a part in shaping the day to day life of Heathrow Airport.

To some extent staff just have to get on with life. Stories are told of businesses in London which during the air-raids of the Second World War put up signs saying “Open for business as usual” or “We never close”. That sort of spirit is part of the response of staff to the current crisis. However, at a deeper level and more privately, staff do express concerns. After all they are facing such a vast array of possible threats, not just bombs from the sky. The target could be people, buildings, cargo or planes, or any combination thereof. The London Underground and bus system has already proved attractive to the terrorist, and at Heathrow we have thousands of passengers arriving every hour by “tube” (metro), bus or train. The mode of delivery of an attack could be by any one of a number of devices. Mortars, rockets, lorries, cars, parcels and human carriers have all been used by terrorists. We can talk of a bomb, but it is unlikely to look like the cartoon design with a smoking fuse. It could be made from any number of explosive substances: solid, liquid, shaped and disguised. Then if one looks beyond the simple explosives there is the possibility of other sorts of devices to be considered: biological (such as Ebola virus or anthrax), or nuclear ( whether as an explosive device or poisonous powder).

At the end of the day, a member of staff could easily become stressed at the thought of what might happen. Furthermore, it is not just staff members but their families who are affected. One member of staff told me, in the middle of one crisis, that she had been coping, but then she had talked with her family. It turned out that they were more worried than she was. Having seen the news on the television, listened to the radio and read the newspapers, they couldn’t stop thinking of the risks she might be facing. This then affected her, as she had found it necessary to keep telephoning them while she was at work, in order to re-assure her loved ones.

If such indirect pressure can affect airport workers and airline staff, how much more are they affected by direct contact with passengers? Particular attention also needs to be paid to the conditions of work for security staff, who have to search and screen not only passengers but also other airport workers and airline staff. This is an area of particular sensitivity as events show that terrorists have been employed as airline staff and airport workers.

Research conducted among airline staff has shown that the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001 includes a number of psychological effects on crew members.

No doubt the effects on other airline employees and airport workers are similar. Not only is there an increased level of fear of attack, injury or death, but also increased suspicion of passengers. For those whose lives are disrupted and who find they have to spend additional and unscheduled time away from home, there is a clearly negative impact on family and social relationships. However, there is also a positive effect, and this has been noted by airport chaplains, and that is a greater openness to talk about problems relating to fears about terrorism.

b) Passengers

While the image promoted by commercial advertising portrays air travel as effortless and comfortable, many passengers find that their actual experience is far from this. The queues encountered at check-in and security were not part of the vision of the pioneers of modern civil aviation. Advances in electronic ticketing and baggage handling would by now have made realisable much of their early dream, had it not been for the need to combat contemporary terrorism.

Of course, for many individuals, air travel was never going to be worry-free. There are those who still have a fear of flying, no matter how many statistics are collected and published to show that it is the safest way to travel. Long have airport chaplains been asked to say a prayer for or by a passenger who found that the flight was the least pleasurable part of their holiday or business trip. However, some passengers are affected by more complicated emotional disturbances. A psychologist colleague has explained to me that airports are “liminal” environments, where people find themselves literally between lives. An obvious case might be a person leaving the place where they are known and loved to go somewhere new, where they know nobody and have yet to arrange work and accommodation. This may be an extreme example, but it may help us understand that away from mental landmarks which help people fix their identity, sometimes problems surface from somewhere deep within the psyche. The recent increase in the security precautions has only served to heighten this feeling of airports as being places where one is somehow in a sort of suspended animation, not living as one normally would. Prolonged waiting in a terminal building, having to spend a night or more in an airport hotel, not being able to keep in contact with people on whom a passenger relies; these are elements which add to a loss of focus about who one is. Add on a terrorist alert, or heightened security precautions and it is not surprising some passengers are very distressed.

One phenomenon which can be specifically linked to the increased threat of terrorist attack is a much higher level of suspicion of other passengers or airport staff, and even airline personnel. Passengers have been reported to security or airline personnel because they are speaking an Arabic sounding language, or listening to Arabic music in a taxi. On one flight, passengers demanded that others be off-loaded simply because they looked like Arabs. One British Airways flight to New York was diverted because a mobile phone rang mid-flight and the owner could not be identified. Taken alone, these events hardly merit a column inch or two in a tabloid newspaper, but taken together they are symptomatic of a widespread sense of not being able to trust others, of behaviour which is somehow unusual being a sign that a person poses a threat to the safety of others.

Of course some passengers do not help the situation. One of my colleagues was escorting a youth group going to Africa as volunteers. A young man in the group made the mistake of joking to the check-in staff that he was carrying a bomb. Immediately he was taken aside, and even though security staff were quite quickly re-assured, he risked being prosecuted or at the least being banned from travelling. Luckily, partly because of the nature of the group, he was let off with a warning. He was lucky, for in 2005 a man was arrested for making a similar remark while checking-in at Heathrow. Furthermore, he was not allowed to fly, and having made his way home to Ireland some other way, he had to return to London the following week to face trial. The outcome was that he was fined £500. If one adds on the costs he incurred, his “joke” was rather an expensive one, at about £1,000.  

Part Three: The Chaplaincy and the challenges we face.

As I mentioned, one of the characteristics of the Chaplaincy at Heathrow Airport is the that we are a multi-faith Chaplaincy. While a rabbi and an imam have been members of our team for some years, the more recent addition of Sikh chaplains and a Hindu chaplain, have given us a much wider credibility among airport staff. They are much more likely to see that we are there for everyone who comes to the airport, passengers or staff. Furthermore, this development reflects recent progress in the area of developing co-operation and understanding between faiths in the boroughs in which the airport employees live. Indeed, three of the airport chaplains are involved in these local inter-faith initiatives.

If on the one hand there is increased suspicion of certain ethnic and religious groups, because, no matter how unjustifiably, they are seen as being linked with terrorists, then in it is not surprising that those groups feel under threat. As one of our bishops has pointed out, Catholics can identify with this, for we, especially those with Irish names, were similarly mistrusted by some of our neighbours during the IRA campaigns. Even as late as 1999, I remember answering an abusive phone call from someone who equated the Catholic Church with Irish terrorists.

So it was not surprising that in the aftermath of 9/11 and the more recent terrorist attacks in London, the imam invited some of the Christian chaplains to address his congregation at the end of Friday prayers. Whichever Christian denomination we belonged to our message was very much the same. We emphasised that peace was our common desire and our common aim. As chaplains we felt it was our responsibility to make it clear that we did not regard the staff members listening to us as being in any way linked to the perpetrators of those attacks.

Nevertheless, we have to face the reality that in a time of great tension people do not think as calmly as they might otherwise do. One can encounter both staff and passengers who have stereotypical images of Muslims, and I often think they would be surprised were they to discover that the smartly dressed young lady who has just served them coffee or checked –in their bags is a Muslim. Sometimes there is no real chance to challenge the prejudices some people have. At other times it can be fruitful to see what experience the person one is talking to actually has of those whom they are labelling as terrorists. In a recent discussion with a group of Christians, I found out that, when prompted to consider the matter, they agreed that Muslims have received unfair treatment both at the hands of the media, and in popular perception.

With staff members I believe chaplains can have an important part to play in helping them recognise when they are stressed. The effects of on-going stress build up over time, and can sometimes catch the sufferer unawares. In each case it might well depend on the care provided by their employers, but some airport workers might both need and welcome advice that they should seek help from counsellor or doctor. While we tend to use the word “macho” to describe a style of behaviour which seeks to present a tough exterior in the face of adversity, the problem of trying to carry on when one can’t or denying that one is suffering is not restricted to men. In a competitive commercial environment in which any sign of perceived weakness might be used against a staff member by colleagues or employers, it is not surprising that there can be a great reluctance to admit that one needs help.

Nevertheless, the role of the chaplain is different from that of the counsellor. The chaplain is primarily a man or woman of faith. One of my happiest moments as a chaplain was to hear myself described, by a Yiddish-speaking Jew I was helping, as a “Gottesmann”. Translating the expression literally, that is what every chaplain is, of whatever faith, God’s man. As men or women of God, it is his work we seek to do. In the complex and cut-throat world of aviation and retail, we stand for something different. We do not rate someone by their salary, we don’t expect them to meet performance targets set by their sales managers or accountants. In fact, if we managed to get people to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, we might be seen as subversive by those whose greatest fear is financial failure.

At Heathrow, near the Chapel, we have a Memorial Garden. The memorials there are mainly to young men and women who died while working at the airport. Some were in their twenties, others in their thirties, many in their forties. Downstairs in the Chapel we have a memorial to the victims of the Lockerbie disaster, when a plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb. As chaplains we offer a vision which is not afraid to deal with the often taboo question of death, and also provides some understanding of the meaning of life. Though a death may be the occasion for some people to start thinking about God, it is in helping them live out their faith that chaplains have the most to offer.

There are some who see the present world terrorist threat as a sign of the end of times. Indeed some relish the prospect of an ultimate conflict as a motivating factor to bring people into their particular denomination or sect. They feed on fear, and they seem to take a perverse delight in the terrible terrorist attacks we have seen. As Catholics we offer a vision which abhors all violence, though we recognise that as long as injustice goes uncorrected violence is the only way some will be able to see to finding a remedy to their social and political ills. I think it is important that we collaborate with our colleagues of other Christian communities as well as those of other faiths to show that no religion willingly provides a spiritual haven for terrorists, but that all men and women of faith can work together to alleviate suffering and injustice.

Looking around the airport, particularly at times like Haj, one can see hundreds of Muslims. Standing beside them one might equally well see an orthodox Jew or a Sikh. Just as we can peaceably share the lounges and other facilities of the airport terminal, so we can hope the nations and religions of the world might co-exist without conflict on this beautiful planet God has given us. Sometimes the airport terminal is portrayed as some sort of hell. For my part, and this might be surprising from a self-confessed cynic, the sight of so many people quietly getting on with their lives and in harmony with their neighbour, well, that cannot be Hell. Perhaps, it is a bit of Purgatory at times, but with grace-given vision, who knows, it could be Heaven.