Airport Volunteers Lend Frazzled Travelers a Helping Hand

PHOTO: DIAs Airport Ambassadors assist travelers every day.Courtesy Denver International Airport
DIA's Airport Ambassadors assist travelers every day.

It's gearing up to be a busy summer travel season: Airlines for America predicts there will be more than 206 million people flying this summer, and that's only on U.S carriers. That breaks down to about 2.24 million passengers per day.

With all those people passing through airports, many of them infrequent fliers, there's sure to be plenty of angst. Lost bags, lost children, parking questions, rental car inquires, flight delays and cancellations. Who can you turn to for help?

Your friendly airport greeters of course. You'll recognize them by the white hats at Denver International. Or the red vests at Calgary International in Canada. And, very soon, the pins on their clothing at New York's JFK.

JFK airport rolls out a new program on May 22, just in time for the busy summer travel season. Called Edge4Vets N.I.C.E. Corps, the program plans to use the skills of military veterans to help alleviate passenger frustrations at the airport. It takes airport employees who are also veterans and gives them N.I.C.E. (Neutralize Irritations Customers Experience) training.

The pilot program was designed by Tom Murphy, director of the Human Resiliency institute at Fordham University. He said the program would initially be in Terminal 4, and has 30 trained problem solvers ready to help. "What travelers want most," he said, "is for someone to care when things go wrong. They want someone who will step up and help."

Veterans employed at a variety of airport companies – even airlines like JetBlue, Delta and American Airlines, and agencies like TSA– have signed up for the training. The idea, Murphy said, is for veterans already involved in the pilot program to spot other airline employees going the extra mile and then report it. Those employees will then be recognized and rewarded for their helpfulness. Murphy said that in time he hopes the program will take on a life of its own, resulting in a more positive airport experience for employees and travelers alike.

Additionally, he said, "the image of veterans will be advanced."

Other airport greeter programs have been around for years, and the volunteers aren't getting rewarded. Dan Melfi, director of terminal operations and customer service at Denver International Airport, said the 350 Airport Ambassadors at his airport get a recognition dinner once a year, but that's about it.

"Airports get real mean," said Melfi. "It helps to have a smiling face greet your flight and answer your questions."

But the ambassadors at DIA are often called on to be much more than smiling faces. For that reason, they undergo training, complete with testing, on everything about the airport. Their expertise will be especially crucial, he said, when construction starts on the airport's south terminal.

They're also there to lend a hand when a flight is canceled or delayed. In those situations, Melfi said, the ambassadors can get you to a manager or a supervisor quickly to help you rebook. He gave an example of a man whose flight was delayed, and was very frustrated and upset. "He was not in his right mind," Melfi said. An airport ambassador approached the man to see how he could help. It turned out a member of the man's family had just been killed. He needed to get home, but his flight to Washington, D.C., had been canceled. The ambassador got him booked on a flight connecting through Dallas that got him home quickly. The man was so out of it, Melfi said, he had not even considered connecting through another city. The ambassador was able to offer not only assistance but kindness.

They later found out, through a thank-you note from the man's office, that he was a U.S. congressman.

Volunteers at DIA are primarily retired airline employees, though that's not a requirement. CEOs, managers, supervisors are all now wearing the famous white hats. At Canada's Calgary Airport, the volunteers also wear white hats, paired with red vests. And at Winnipeg International Airport, they wear gold or silver vests.

"We have a little rivalry with Winnipeg about who started the program first," Melfi said. "They too have an excellent program." Melfi said the DIA airport ambassadors program, which has been in place since 1992, has saved the city of Denver well over $1million. They work four to six hour shifts and on each shift, help between 25 to 50 travelers.

DIA's airport ambassador program has been replicated in at least 15 airports across the country, Melfi estimates, including Los Angeles, Dallas, Orlando and Raleigh-Durham. Tampa recently put out a call for 100 volunteers at its airport in advance of the Republican National Convention.

Airport ambassadors are so critical to tourism, because they are "the first and last impression of Colorado," said Melfi. "I don't care how smart you are, how much money you make. Every time you go to the airport, you're at risk. Flight delays, cancellations, all of it. Bottom line, the volunteers keep them moving."

And after all, isn't that what we all want at the airport this summer? To just to keep moving.