Friendly faces for travelers

Volunteers: At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, guides help travelers with all manner of questions and crises.

October 04, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

In full view of snaking ticket-counter lines and truck-sized explosive-detection machines, a cadre of volunteers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport spend their leisure time ministering to befuddled - even surly - passengers.

Ever cheerful, in crisp shirts with a Maryland logo and their BWI pins shining, they direct passengers to the baggage claim, answer questions about flight delays and help travelers get where they're going.

"Flying is a stressful thing, and people are demanding. You have to calm them down," said Don Cohen, a retired shoe salesman who has volunteered at BWI's information desk for a year. "I do this because I love people and it makes me feel good when I can solve their problems."

But BWI may benefit most from the volunteers. The state-run airport, which handles more than 20 million passengers a year, can't afford to hire information ambassadors for its terminal. And it needs helpers now more than ever, thanks to post-Sept. 11 security changes and a $1.8 billion expansion project that produces frequent shifts in the airport's layout.

"There are a lot of things in this business that we don't control. One of the things that we do control is customer service," said BWI Executive Director Paul J. Wiedefeld. "I think it's important, with the uncertainty in the industry, and the associated security issues, that we put a friendly face back into air travel."

The rise in volunteer programs is part of a trend for government-run airports that want to improve customer service but don't have the funds, said Kit Weiss, passenger services manager for Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, which has 300 volunteers. She estimates that about 40 airports have such programs.

The volunteer program at BWI dates back to the mid-1970s, after the airport shed its folksy Friendship Airport name and began redefining itself as a transportation center. Eventually, the Traveler's Aid Society took over the information desks, giving directions and sometimes money to stranded travelers.

In 1999, airport officials decided BWI needed an official welcome center. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development's tourism arm took over management of volunteers. Traveler's Aid left, though it still operates in about 20 other airports.

Last spring, former airport director Beverley Swaim-Staley was so concerned about passenger displeasure that she required employees to staff the information desks and walk the terminal for a few hours a month.

Swaim-Staley, now a deputy transportation secretary, thought recruiting more volunteers also would help. BWI's customer service director, Kelly Derthick, joined forces with volunteer program coordinator Rachel Ruocco to expand the program.

So far, the 26-year-old Ruocco has 58 volunteers - a few of them returnees from the former Traveler's Aid program - and hopes to have 100 by the end of the year.

Each volunteer is committed to a weekly four-hour shift, between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., most of them at one of three information desks or in the terminal. All must get approval for a staff badge to get through security to public areas beyond the checkpoint. About a third have earned the national certification of a travel counselor.

Some volunteers, such as Shikha Kapoor, are new to the program. A journalist from India, she is volunteering while she gets acquainted with the United States.

"I'm new in the country. This airport is a great way to meet people and get experience in the American workplace," she said.

Many volunteers do much more than their shift. Jim Woodhams, a Silver Spring resident who has volunteered at BWI for three years, spends at least a day a month riding the Washington-area Metro, the light rail and the public bus system to find the cheapest routes between BWI and metropolitan destinations.

His adventures helped the airport develop two of its most popular handouts: Six Ways to Washington, D.C. and Seven Ways to Dulles.

Some travelers' woes are so common they no longer give the volunteers pause: relatives who show up at BWI when their loved ones are landing at Dulles; travelers who land without any money; and those bound for other cities who disembark at BWI.

Other situations are more memorable, like the couple from Denver who showed up for a family reunion at a local hotel - then flew back when the hotel insisted it had no reunion.

Or the luggage-less woman who asked how best she could spend $2,000 by the end of the week.

Or the middle-aged woman who rode in cabs all over Dundalk in search of her dock-worker boyfriend, only to fly to Mobile, Ala., at the last minute when the cruise line he worked for informed her that the ship was docked far south of Baltimore.

Volunteer Emanuel "Bert" Poulis recalls a young woman from a former Soviet bloc country who was dropped off at the airport on a Friday with a ticket for the following Monday. Her loaded cart included a television, a DVD player and several bags, and the airline wouldn't let her through the conveyor belt to store it in lockers.

The cart toppled in front of Poulis, and the woman fell to the floor, sobbing. But a Southwest Airlines flight attendant offered to let the woman stay at her hotel suite for the weekend, and Poulis loaded the woman's bags into his car and drove them there.

Airport volunteers do have one complaint: They rarely learn how the journey ends.

Poulis still wonders about the dockworker's sweetheart who went to Mobile. Cohen ponders what went wrong with that couple from Denver. And Woodhams said he would like to know how the woman spent her $2,000.

"You help people, you send them off," Woodhams said, "and then you never know the outcome."

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