The first plane trip I remember must have been about 1980, a flight on Alaska Airlines from Portland, where my parents were in school, to Anchorage to see my grandparents. I wore a dress and tights. I took a tour of the cockpit. Breakfast, which didn't cost anything and was pretty decent, showed up on a tray with real silverware, tiny white paper tubes of salt and pepper, and a small card printed with a short passage from Psalms.
If you fly today you can still find one of those prayer cards, but only in the first class cabin where there is still meal service. If you like yours, tuck it in a pocket. Just like free drinks and real silverware, it’s about to become a relic of another era. Alaska Airlines said Wednesday it will discontinue the cards on the planes starting Feb. 1
Over recent years, a growing number of passengers complained about them, according to Bobbie Egan, Alaska Air spokeswoman. In a letter, the airline told frequent fliers this week its decision was about respect for "diverse religious beliefs and cultural attitudes" of its passengers.
"Religious beliefs are deeply personal," the letter read. "Sharing them with others is an individual choice."
This is all true. And Alaska in particular is not a state of church-goers. But still, when I heard the news, I felt a tinge of regret.
It's a dicey prospect, I know, mixing spirituality with business. It's hard to do it elegantly. I'm an agnostic with Buddhist sympathies and Catholic communion pictures in a shoebox somewhere. I don't mind a blessing over dinner but I don't like being preached to. I quit going to a vet a few years back because the religious tchotchkes in the waiting room and the Christian rock "hold music" made feel unwelcome. But those prayer cards never bothered me. They were quaint, take-it-or-leave-it messages on your tray, like the Gideons bible in the hotel nightstand or the Buddhist quote on the little piece of paper at the end of a tea bag string.
Alaska began distributing the printed cards more than 30 years ago. It was a tradition borrowed from another airline. It was meant to set Alaska apart.
"The rationale was that it would comfort some fliers," Egan said.
Maybe that's why I liked them. They sort of cut to the chase. Beneath the careful choreography of the cabin, with the calm-voiced flight attendants and the distractions of DigiPlayers and drinks, I know I'm not the only passenger thinking about my own vulnerability.
If nothing else, the Bible is literature that contemplates essential human themes: creation and death, loss and forgiveness. I don't mind thinking about those when I'm lofted 30,000 feet above the earth in a metal tube powered by highly flammable gas. There's an existential undercurrent to airline travel that reveals itself on occasion, like during heavy turbulence when the plane goes quiet.
Sitting there, lined up in our plane seats, we're reminded that so many things are outside our control. Sure, go ahead, put on a life jacket. But if the plane plunges into the Gulf, my friend, your number is up. Alaskans know the risks of flying better than most. There are more pilots here than anywhere else. So many of us are only a few degrees of separation from a crash story. To fly without any anxiety, a person needs a Xanax prescription or, I think, a little faith.
The last time I saw a prayer card was a few months ago. I'd been upgraded to first class. Under my chicken salad croissant was that familiar rectangular photo card that read "I will praise God's name in song and glorify him with Thanksgiving." I was holding my baby at the time, sitting next to my partner, looking down at a stretch of snowy mountains somewhere around Yakutat. I was thankful for all of that. If we didn't make it to our destination, so be it. At least we were together.
Perhaps an airline can't try to soothe its passengers with prayer anymore, but I doubt that means when the 737 makes that big turn over Cook Inlet and the wind catches the wings and gives the cabin a good bounce, that there will be fewer words of faith being whispered in the aisles.