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Frequent flier smiles

Major Winton Knop, airport chaplain

17 November 2015
Major Winton Knop is a friendly and, significantly, fit 62-year-old Australian. He happily gets out of bed each morning to serve God and humanity as a Salvation Army officer.

It helps that Winton loves exercise and is a lifelong sportsman; in his appointment as an airport chaplain at Tullamarine, north of Melbourne, he clocks up approximately 12 km or almost 7.5 miles a day, or about one-and-a-half marathons every working week. (A small city with its own postcode, 3045, Melbourne Airport* is 23.69 km² and the whole airport area is 27 acres – it presents a decent hike.)

As Christmas approaches, demonstrably the busiest time of the year for travellers, e-connect asked Winton about the irony of immense stress being experienced by many people as they engage in the pleasurable act of taking a holiday.

‘It’s understandable that people juggling flight times and traffic and kids and luggage will feel extreme pressure at times,’ Winton explains.

‘Often it’s the women who carry more stress and workload, organising the logistics and supervising the kids, and often their husbands might strategically arrange to meet their families at the airport after work.’

Winton and his team have helped people in extreme situations, such as the aftermath of massive coronary arrests, and the loss (and/or theft) of tickets and wallets and itineraries – losses that have meant the non-observance of a dream holiday and the frustration of months or years of effort, saving and planning.

Unexamined, an airport might seem a curious choice for Salvation Army chaplaincy. A bit of thinking and digging, however, reveals the enormity of Winton’s role.

 The Melbourne-Sydney air route is reportedly the ‘third most-travelled passenger air route in the world and the third busiest in the Asia Pacific region’. Melbourne Airport is rated as ‘the number one arrival/departure point for the airports of four of Australia’s seven other capital cities’ and it served 30 million passengers ‘for the first time in the 12 months ending July 2013’.

Winton says his ‘parish’ last year included 32 million passengers, 14,000 staff and literally hundreds of companies. The challenges faced included bereavements, physical and mental health issues, human trafficking, Family and Domestic Violence, welfare needs, pastoral demands, crises and counselling, assisting disabled persons and sitting in interviews with minors as a witness.

On several occasions he has acted as a bodyguard, reassuring women fleeing abuse from partners that they were safe , ‘keeping them “on task”, assuring them that they were right to want to protect themselves and their children’.

There have been health issues, where chaplains have coordinated with firefighters and paramedics and medical staff. There have been emotional and spiritual crises, such as ministering to adult children, waiting forlornly for parents who would never return from their flight aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.

Then there have been heartbreaking moments, such as attending the interview of a Canadian minor ‘sprung’ carrying kilos of pure heroin into Australia; a young life altered forever by the rash decision to act as a ‘mule’.

Winton and his colleagues are aware of the weight they carry, and debriefing happens formally and informally as helpful. He is particularly grateful for the care of his colleagues, his chaplaincy coordinator, Major Tracey English, and of his spiritual director.

* Melbourne Airport and Launceston Airport are owned by Australia Pacific Airports Corporation, which shares the costs of the chaplaincy team with The Salvation Army Australia Southern Territory.  
See next article, ‘How did the Salvos end up in ‘Tulla’?