Religion, Food and Airlines

At Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, a bit of inflight Bible study is less a matter of crewmember whim than an in-house tradition. High over the clouds, passengers at Alaska may come across the following heavenly chatter:

“I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name
O most high.”
– Psalm 9:2

No, that’s not your captain speaking, it’s your breakfast tray, which includes not only the usual assortment of cups, containers, and wrappers, but an inspirational notecard with a snippet from the Old Testament — a company custom since the mid 1970s. Alaska Airlines is well known for unusually gracious passenger service, and its catering seems to come with its own holy blessing,

“I will praise God’s name in song, and glorify Him with thanksgiving.”

Hey, and for an upgrade I’ll baptize myself in the lav and spend a weekend digging latrines at a Guatemalan orphanage. For better or worse, I figure there’s no shortage of Americans willing to hear out a prayer or two if it means some tastier food and a wider seat.

If you’re inclined to send a complaint Alaska’s way, be prepared for the following:

“The meal prayer card has been a simple tradition on our flights for over 20 years. The quotes have application across many Judeo-Christian beliefs and are shared as a gesture of thanks which reflect the beliefs of this country’s founding as in the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Pledge of Allegiance and every US coin and dollar you handle. Alaska Airlines is an international carrier with very diverse customers, and we have no intentions of offending anyone or their beliefs. An overwhelming majority of our customers have indicated they appreciate the gesture, and those who don’t are not forced to read it. We do appreciate hearing from you, and look forward to welcoming you on board another flight in the future.”

The mistake here isn’t the card, but the flavor of justification for it. The carrier takes a fully defensible gesture and promptly makes it as offensive as possible by coupling it with nationalistic ideology. Maybe it’s just me, but when I see the words “Judeo-Christian” in the same sentence with “Declaration of Independence,” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” my blood pressure begins to soar. Alaska Airlines has the right and privilege to hand out prayer cards, rosary beads, ACLU membership forms, or the biography of L. Ron Hubbard if it so chooses (some of you, doubtless, will contest this right, but I’m sticking to it). However, I’m greatly disheartened to see the matter of religion dragged, yet again, onto the stage with patriotism and the alleged essence of what it means to be a true American.

An airline spokesperson tells me a less loaded comminque is in fact the “offical” response to prayer card protestors, but was unable to share a copy.

Looking elsewhere…

At United Airlines, copies of Gideon’s Bible are stocked in the first class magazine rack. Several months ago a decision was made to discontinue this tradition, but according to Gideon’s the airline has since reconsidered This from the group’s website: “Did you know… that Gideon Bibles are placed on commercial airlines? On January 14, United Airlines reaffirmed their commitment to have the Word of God available on their flights. Praise God for this confirmation!”

Eight thousand miles away, patrons of Malaysia Airlines, a carrier whose home country is less than 70 percent Muslim, will discover prayer pamphlets stacked in every jet’s entryway. In a choice of English, Malay, and Arabic, pious — or at least nervous — riders may partake of the predeparture “doa,” which goes like this:

“In the name of Allah when taking off and landing,
verily my God is most forgiving and merciful.”

Stacked in a holding pattern and worried about your connection?

O Allah, facilitate our journey and let us cover its distance quickly.

If this Allah business leaves you uneasy, I was once handed a small card from an airport chaplain in Charlotte, North Carolina:

“Dear Lord, I thank you,
Please provide for a safe flight,
and travel to and from the airport.
Bless and watch over me
At my destination.”

Malaysia Airlines’ 747s and 777s are outfitted with Muslim prayer rooms, while the in-seat video screens show a constantly updated qibla compass, giving real-time distance and direction to Mecca. Other carriers with Muslim customer bases have almost identical amenities — if indeed that’s the right word.

Among them is Emirates, headquartered on the edge of the Persian Gulf and among the world’s fastest growing and highly regarded airlines. I’m constantly singing the praises of Emirates, but at least one reader was quick to denounced my awarding the company “Airline of the Year,” angrily accusing it of nothing less than blatant anti-Semitism for — and here we go — refusing to stock Kosher meals.

Intriguing, but then again they don’t stock Zoroastrian meals either. Although thousands of non-Arabs and non-Muslims fly Emirates every day, the airline points out that its numbers of Jewish passengers, particularly those strict enough to require Kosher, can probably be counted on one hand.

Needless to say food prepared by dictate of Halal, the Islamic equivalent of Kosher, is no trouble. In fact all Emirates meals, including six (!) vegetarian options, are Halal. Muslims unable to verify adherence are known to indulge in Kosher, though evidently it doesn’t work the other way around. In the words of one traveler’s Web posting: “Kosher food has to be supervised by a rabbi, and I’ll eat my yarmulke the day Emirates has one of them working in their business.” We’d sooner expect flight attendants on El Al to give out Palestinian flags, maybe.

In America, Continental Airlines, with an enormous New York City hub (Newark), no longer provides a Kosher option except on services to Tel Aviv. While protests against Continental are relatively scarce (at least one online petition is looking for signatures), the World Wide Web is alive with screams of bigotry, “phobo-Semitism,” and “anti-Jewish policy” at Emirates, perhaps belying the controversy as purely religious instead of the more confrontational Arab-v-Israeli.

Looking for secular sanity? Atlanta, Georgia, might be heart and soul of the nation’s Bible Belt, but there’s no religious baggage on hometown Delta Air Lines. If you’re lucky enough to have a seat in Delta’s tony BusinessElite cabin, you’ll have to draw what inspiration you can from the airline’s take-home amenities kit. Inside you’ll find a sort of pseudo-spiritual fortune cookie called — and I am not making this up — a “Chinese Romance Card.”

Blasphemy of blasphemies, word has it that Delta is on the verge of changing one of the coolest and most inventive amenities cases around — its semi-rigid, triangular (“widget-shaped” in Delta-ese) zipper bag that looks something like a bicycle seat. Get one while you can. Packable, squashable, and indestructible, the kit holds ear plugs, socks, mints, lip balm, toothbrush — and your Chinese Romance Card. And not a cross, star, or crescent in sight. Amen to that.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.