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Flying high at The Salvation Army

Airport chaplain Keith Banks speaking at a conference

With a gun to his head and knife to his throat, four men held him down as they robbed the centre at which he was leading a conference.

Life for Glasgow International Airport’s Chaplain has seen its fair share of turbulence. The Salvation Army’s Commissioner Keith Banks can draw upon his experience to help passengers and staff.  

“I’ve comforted a mother who had sent her 17 year old son off to the war in Afghanistan and helped people who have heard that the very person they were on their way to meet had died suddenly. I make it my job to be there for the 4500 airport staff who, like everyone else, have their problems. I’ve even been asked to conduct an employee’s wedding, which is a real honour.”

Landing the job just six months after losing his wife Pauline, Commissioner Keith Banks (69) has now spent two and a half years working at Glasgow International Airport as its Chaplain.

He was slashed across the arm and back by the four armed men just four months into his Salvation Army post in Papa New Guinea. Facing death he prayed for one more effort to break free and managed to escape the men and their ring leader. Now he prays to help others in need.

Called in to meet a woman on a flight back from Heathrow whose husband had died suddenly on a flight from Sydney is Commissioner Keith Banks’ most significant memory.

“I spent over an hour with a lady who was meant to be flying home with her husband from Heathrow. I walked her from the plane as we carried two pieces of hand luggage together, knowing that her husband wasn’t coming back. Tragically he had died suddenly on his flight from Sydney. That was tough. I was myself recently bereaved and could understand what the lady was going through. I collected the couple’s suitcases and, with the support of the airline, made sure someone was waiting at home for her.

“Another woman had received a phone call to say her son-in-law had died tragically – suicide – and she was waiting for a flight to see her daughter. I went up to her and explained that I had noticed she was in distress and asked if I could help. No-one has ever told me to go away. They open up.”

He is there to offer support to the 30,000 passengers who pass through every day and staff in what he describes as a ‘warm, supportive, self-contained community’ and can be seen walking around the terminal or visiting the prayer room at the international arrivals area. Glasgow Airport has three areas dedicated to multi-faith prayer: as well as the room on the ground floor besides international arrivals, there are two small areas in departures; one at gate 26, the other at gate 29.

The job is Keith’s dream job – something he always wanted to do in retirement and his eyes sparkle as he describes his day-to-day routine.

Keith is part of the airport’s crisis management team - there to help deal with any major incident as well as offering assistance to passengers in distress and support family members. One of his challenging jobs was helping to keep hundreds of passengers calm when the volcanic ash caused long delays and cancellations.

He welcomes all faiths to his prayer room and recently welcomed 25 Buddhists who wanted a space to pray before they embarked upon a pilgrimage. One of the group later sent Buddhist prayer beads as a thank you. He also has a list he works his way through offering prayers to all who ask, and spends a great deal of time writing letters and cards to people who need support.

Keith makes it his mission to be there for anyone who needs him and sees his role as being the face of the Church or a ‘visible Chaplain’ for people who wouldn’t normally go to church on a weekly basis. He seeks to build warm relationships with those he comes into contact with and enjoys chatting to young people who may normally communicate exclusively via text or through social media. Keith organised and led the Christmas Carol Concert for the general public and staff during the busy festive period.

Travel is a topic close to Keith’s heart. He worked as the Officer Commanding for the work of The Salvation Army in Papa New Guinea and Chief Secretary in Japan, as well as being the International Secretary for Personnel at the organisation’s International Headquarters in London – a post which took him all over the world.

“I find airports fascinating and have always loved to travel. People are usually positive – even if they have been delayed and are running out of patience. I’ve had some very happy times abroad and despite my ordeal in Papa New Guinea we stayed there for four years. I recently returned there to give £8,000 to the officer training college.’  This was half the profit raised from the sale of a CD his wife had made shortly before she died.

“My current role is the best yet and I love being with people and being there for everyone at the airport – even if it’s sometimes simply letting people know where the toilets are! The arrivals area is a highly emotional place and I always see people waiting for loved ones holding banners and flowers.

“There is a super team in place here and I have made many friends. My daily task is to help everyone I can and I will do this job for as long as I my legs can cope with all the walking!”

Commissioner Keith Banks celebrates his 70th birthday this November. He lives in Largs, his daughter, son-in-law and grandsons live in Gourock and his son lives in Los Angeles. He has worked for The Salvation Army in London, Skegness, Carlisle and Nottingham, and was the Army’s Territorial Youth Secretary for Scotland from 1981-1985.