Working to make friendly skies friendlier

More volunteers sought to aid travelers at BWI

April 16, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

If you like people, can read color-coded flight monitors and don't mind sharing your free time with confused travelers, rifle-toting National Guardsmen and the occasional bomb-sniffing dog, Baltimore-Washington International Airport officials have an opportunity for you.

BWI Airport Director Beverley K. Swaim-Staley is seeking volunteers to help customers navigate BWI's ever-changing terminal, directing the 20 million travelers who pass through each year to parking lots, gates and the nearest deli.

"When you're in the terminal, it's very rare that you don't see someone who looks like they need help," Swaim-Staley said yesterday.

And although the airport director said BWI receives few complaints about customer service, she's quick to add, "I think we can do better in terms of providing assistance."

For the past seven months, Swaim-Staley has asked employees to volunteer as walking customer-service outposts throughout the terminal during peak times. She required her senior staff to take shifts during Christmas and Thanksgiving, and worked several herself.

The airport has accepted volunteers through the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and other agencies for years, but Swaim-Staley's time on the floor convinced her of the need for a formal volunteer program to staff the terminal, as well as the shuttle buses and the parking garages. With the airport's $1.8 billion expansion plan occasionally turning roads into mazes of orange cones, and high-level security officials from the newly created Transportation Security Administration redesigning checkpoints, even airport regulars are befuddled occasionally.

Swaim-Staley said that although she will continue to count on employees' help, she wants to cultivate a corps of volunteers to staff the information desks at the domestic and international piers, as well as roam the terminal. The airport has about 25 volunteers, many of them senior citizens, and airport officials said they would like to see 100 more. Swaim-Staley said she hasn't settled on a number.

Airport volunteers won't need security clearances. They won't enter restricted areas. They needn't worry about leaving grooming tools such as eyelash curlers or nail clippers at home for fear of setting off the metal detectors. Their domain will be the airport's public areas.

Swaim-Staley said she doubts that anxiety about airports will deter volunteers. Some people visit BWI when they're not flying, she said, to attend concerts or because their children like to play at the Observation Deck.

Charlie Ruby, a 77-year-old Hanover resident, said he and his wife started volunteering at the information desk four years ago because "it was something to do."

The retired computer technician has a lot to do during his four-hour shift each week.

Yesterday, travelers rarely left him alone. Within his first 10 minutes, two women bound for Atlanta asked him where to store their bags during their six-hour layover. While explaining that the airport no longer has storage places because of the attacks Sept. 11, Ruby directed a man to Southwest's ticket counter and a woman to Northwest's, and outlined different eating options for a young couple. All the while, a caller waited on hold.

Ruby said recent events haven't dampened his enthusiasm for volunteering. He says he plans to continue "as long as I'm healthy, I've got all my senses and I can get around."

Information about volunteering at BWI: 410-859-7826.

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