From interfaith chapels to nursing pods, airports around the U.S. offer a variety of private, quiet areas for spiritual rejuvenation, emotional grounding or simply to calm hectic nerves. These hushed settings of stillness and quiet make it easier than ever for travelers to squeeze in some peaceful respite during their journey.
Airport's sacred spaces
Since the opening of the first U.S. airport chapel, Our Lady of the Airways at Boston’s Logan International Airport in 1951, terminals around the globe have added spaces for prayer, worship and meditation. Today, the public chapel seats 250, serves mass daily and open around-the-clock mass for passengers, airport and airline employees.
Meantime, Our Lady of the Skies Chapel at JFK was founded in 1955. As the nation’s second-oldest chapel it offers daily mass and performs weddings and baptismal for employees and passengers under the watchful gaze of a six-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary.
Initially, these sacred spaces were created for airline parishioners whose long hours interfered with their attendance to mass. However, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, over half of the nation’s busiest airports now have interfaith chapels or prayer rooms that reflect the ever-evolving religious makeup of America.
New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan Washington National each offer an Islamic center, a Jewish synagogue and a Catholic church and all serve as a spiritual comfort zone for travelers and airline employees.
And worshipers have multiple options when it comes to finding a place to pray at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The airport hosts chapels in each of its five terminals, including two that are accessible pre-screening. All are open 24/7.
By the 2000s, airport chapels became more inclusive of all religious visitors, with many converting to interfaith chapels. One transformed space is the chapel at San Francisco International Airport. Dubbed the Berman Reflection Room in honor of Jewish philanthropist Henry Berman, former president of the San Francisco Airport Commission, the room is full of plants and devoid of any religious symbols.
These sacred spaces are often tucked away and are designated on airport maps as the symbol of a person bent in prayer. About half of the existing chapels in the U.S. are available for use on the pre-screening side of the airport.
Since these chapels are an extension of communities they’re housed in, the uptick in gun violence in the U.S. towards mosques, synagogues and churches has caused the Orlando International Airport officials to recently cancel religious services at their two reflection rooms. Travelers are still allowed to pray or meditate in the reflection rooms, but organized church services are no longer permitted.
While four of the nation's largest airports — Los Angeles International Airport (the second-busiest in the U.S.), New York's LaGuardia, Philadelphia International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas — don’t have formal chapels, they do offer other types of tranquil options.
Accommodating passengers with autism and developmental disabilities
The flying experience is often challenging for travelers on the autism spectrum and their families. To help those on the spectrum deal with the stress of unfamiliar sounds and places, at least seven airports – Shannon in Ireland; London’s Gatwick; Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, the Myrtle Beach Airport; Lehigh Valley’s international airport and, most recently, Presley's Place at Pittsburgh International Airport – have launched sensory rooms.
Pittsburgh's 1,500-square-foot space is open 24/7 and features a replicate airplane cabin for parents and children to practice sitting on a plane. While each space varies in size and features, they’re all designed to sooth visitors of all ages.
FAM Act protects nursing travelers in U.S. airports
The recently passed ‘Friendly Airports for Mothers (FAM) Act’ requires the 61 large and medium hub airports in the U.S. to provide private ‘lactation areas’ beyond security in every terminal. This amenity may come in the form of a formal nursing room or a breastfeeding pod.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world's busiest airport, has six lactation pods near its gates to accommodate traveling families. The ADA compliant Mother’s Rooms at Chicago O’Hare Airport are open 24/7, available in every terminal and features comfortable seating, a sink, electrical outlets, a diaper changing surface, soft lighting and a locking door.