The realization hit Bethany Woodhouse five minutes before she stepped off the plane: for the first time in 18 months, she was about to see her family. As she descended the escalator, Woodhouse was overwhelmed by the balloons, signs and the faces of her loved ones. But she was not the only one.
Woodhouse arrived in the Salt Lake International Airport with a group of about 15 other missionaries.
“With that many missionaries, the airport was packed with all of our families holding up signs and balloons,” Woodhouse said.
A family greeting their returned missionary with banners, balloons and other attractions is common sight at the Salt Lake International Airport. But since the missionary age change in 2012 and the increase of about 20,000 missionaries, it’s starting to become a problem.
Missionaries’ families crowd around the escalator and other important flow points in the airport, making it hard for passengers to claim their bags or find their loved ones, according to airport public relations manager Bianca Shreeve.
“We love being the place where families are reunited. We have a great relationship with these returning missionaries,” Shreeve said. “However, the large crowds that come for the returning missionaries do cause a few problems.”
The large groups that come to the airport for missionaries’ homecomings also overpopulate the parking lots and increase traffic at the airport, Shreeve said.
“When you go to the airport and see all the families there for their missionaries, my first thought is, ‘Oh, how sweet,'” said Ariel Warren, a Kaysville resident who flies from the Salt Lake airport. “But when you can’t get your stuff, it just kind of seems like the place is not big enough for everyone.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appears to have begun addressing this issue in mission calls. “Only immediate family members should go to the airport to pick up missionaries returning from their missions. Extended family members and other who wish to greet a returning missionary should do so at the missionary’s home or at some location other than the airport,” a recent mission call says next to the “Additional MTC Information.”
The Salt Lake airport plans to add a gathering room for people to greet their loved ones with its current renovation. The new addition to the airport would be placed near the security checkpoint removed from areas such as baggage claim. Airport staff would be trained to escort crowds to the correct location.
Although not fully designed, the airport wants to create a comfortable place for the happy reunions. The gathering room will include a rotating art gallery, large windows and a seating area and standing room for about 300 to 400 people, according to Shreeve.
The gathering room is part of the Salt Lake Airport terminal redevelopment program and is set to be finished in 2020.
“I think that a place set apart for people to meet their missionaries will be great because there are definitely more missionaries returning than there was before the missionary age change,” said BYU student Jaxon Kneeler, who also flies from the Salt Lake airport.” Despite the increase, I always love seeing the homecomings at the airport because it reminds me of the feelings I had when I got home and when I greeted my siblings after their return.”
The increase of missionaries has increased the number of missionary homecomings at the Salt Lake airport.
“We were planning to add a gathering place before October 2012,” Shreeve said. “But the increase of missionary homecomings makes this addition to the airport necessary.”