Airport chaplain’s work explored

Chaplain Charlotte Osborn
Chaplain Charlotte Osborn

MORPETH ROTARY CLUB

Rotary were visited by Mrs Charlotte Osborn who is the co-ordinating Chaplain at Newcastle Airport, where she has worked since 2006.

Mrs Osborn proceeded to give us an insight into the background of her work and how much it has changed over the years.

In 2001 the then Director of the airport (Trevor Wendt) decided that the airport needed to have a quiet space where his employees could go when the job got too stressful and they just needed a break. A small triangular-shaped room was provided and furnished and it was available initially for two hours a week for staff only.

The same room is used as the quiet space today, but it has now become a multi-faith chapel, open for 30 hours a week, and is used by many people, including the public.

A total of 4.5 million people go through the airport each year and it is more than holding its own with other regional airports. The way the business is run at the airport is divided into thirds. One third is for low cost airlines, another third for chartered airlines, and another third for scheduled airlines. They provide upwards of £646million to the economy each year and it is growing all the time.

The airport is owned by seven local authorities, who have 51 per cent, and the other 49 per cent is owned by AMP Capital, from Melbourne, Australia.

Mrs Osborn feels it is a good place to work and often people are doing two or three jobs, which she found very strange when she first started after having had a lifetime of teaching and being married to a Methodist Minister. She also discovered very quickly that aviation is still a man’s world, or almost.

Visiting employees around the site is an important part of her job and she is often involved in what is happening, wherever she is.

When Mrs Osborn first took over from The Rev Andrew Letby, she thought that on her first Christmas she would go into the airport and offer communion to those people flying on Christmas Day. It was a steep learning curve and she discovered that most of the people who fly on Christmas Day are doing so to escape the rituals of Christmas. She still, however, goes in every Christmas Day to talk to those who are flying off into the sun, as well as those staff who would probably rather be at home.

Chaplaincy in airports is now a global organisation and there is a chaplain in every airport in Britain, except Bristol. Mrs Osborn showed a slide of a beautiful church in the middle of Dublin airport, informing us that the airport was built around the church, which is Catholic. It is called Our Lady of the Skies.

All UK chaplains meet twice a year and it is good to see where other people work. However Mrs Osborn is also Co-ordinator of the British Isles and Eire Network of Airport Chaplains so she gets to travel quite a lot for various meetings, having had one meeting under Concorde, which was rather different.

There is a new chapel recently opened at Gatwick. As Mrs Osborn explained earlier, aviation is male-dominated and she had recently been at a dinner at The Grosvenor Hotel in London to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Luton Airport where there were 1,000 men with the odd woman, including herself. She has learned to be quite at home with all these males.

Mrs Osborn is not an ordained minister so she does not wear a collar, but most staff on the site knows who she is. For passengers, she wears her name and chaplain in large letters so is easily visible to all.

Emirates Airlines is a key player at the airport and 75 per cent of the passengers who travel with it are connecting to other flights to go elsewhere. The short-hop flights are the bread and butter of the airport. She had recently waved goodbye to a group of people from Cullercoats Methodist Church who were going out to Uganda to build a school. This is one of the joys of the job and there are many others.

Mrs Osborn is also a member of the emergency planning team and takes part in training for emergencies. Emergencies at an airport can be really simple things that we might never think about — seagulls, weather, runway blocked, bird activity. Any of these can hold up passengers.

Three hundred people work for the airport, 100 of which are security. The surrounding connecting businesses employ 3,000 employees and there are 9,000 others dependent on the airport for their livelihood.

Mrs Osborn tries to meet as many staff as she can throughout a month, from a cleaner to the Chief Executive. Every job is vitally important to the smooth running of the airport. Security is very tight and if you do not observe the rules then you could lose your pass, as well as closing the airport.

She has met lots of interesting people during her time and showed a slide of her with Linford Christie.

She trains other chaplains and when things do go wrong, such as when the ash cloud closed the airport for six days, staff get tense and upset, and this is often when she is needed most just by being there, building relationships and being aware of the problems people are facing. She is often asked to do a wedding or a baptism, and she is happy to do this.

An interesting point Mrs Osborn put forward was the charity of the airport, which I have not even thought about. It apparently supports Maggie’s, which has centres across the country offering support to cancer patients and their families.

It is a rich and varied job, and she is happy to be part of the journey that people travel as they come or go in an airport.

Several questions were asked from the floor and Jim Dunn gave a vote of thanks to Mrs Osborn for such an interesting insight to the chaplaincy work at the airport.