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Calm Amid the Chaos

Experts on Planes, Trains, Automobiles Offer Aid to Frantic Holiday Travelers

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page B01

Barbara Connelly spends her free time helping travelers as a volunteer for Travelers Aid at Dulles International Airport. She has reams of information at her fingertips, everything from the cell phone number of the airport chaplain to a list of seven different ways to reach Baltimore -- by land.

So when Caitlin Quinn, loaded down with three bags, approached the Travelers Aid International counter yesterday and asked how to get to Union Station, Connelly was more than ready. She broke out a train map and then a bus schedule, offering a detailed explanation of where Quinn should transfer and telling her the next bus would leave in seven minutes.

Behind the Travelers Aid counter at Dulles International Airport, volunteers Edith Crockett, right, and Simone Bowers assist passengers with questions. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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"Thanks," said Quinn, who had spent $100 on a taxi to Union Station the last time she arrived at Dulles and was looking for something more affordable.

It was a busy day yesterday for Travelers Aid and a hectic one for the thousands of people the organization assisted on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the busiest travel days of the year.

For the November holiday, airports in the Washington area faced the biggest influx of passengers since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. About 1.3 million people were expected to pass through Dulles and Reagan National Airport over the 10 days ending yesterday.

Despite the heavy volume, no major delays occurred yesterday afternoon at the region's three major airports -- including Baltimore-Washington International -- or on the highways, and all appeared to proceed relatively smoothly, transportation officials said.

"It just seems to be normal rush-hour traffic," said Beverly Hunt, a traffic control supervisor for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

For Travelers Aid, days like yesterday are a lifeblood. The organization, based in the District, has been helping travelers since Travelers Aid Societies sprang up in major U.S. cities in response to the increased mobility brought by the Industrial Revolution. In 1914, Travelers Aid workers joined to form an association, then based in New York.

Today, volunteers for Travelers Aid International work at counters in more than 20 airports and serve more than 4 million people in the United States. In the Washington area, the service is available at Dulles and National airports and Union Station. BWI has no Travelers Aid International desk.

At Dulles, 185 Travelers Aid volunteers work at a main counter near baggage claim, a second counter near international arrivals or as floaters who roam the terminal helping passengers.

One passenger in need of assistance yesterday was Suzanne Saunders. Ashen and clutching her cane, she approached the main Travelers Aid counter at 1:15 p.m. to report that she and five family members had missed their flight from Florida home to Philadelphia because the airline changed the time. They got on a later flight with a layover at Dulles but were then told that the next flight to Philadelphia wouldn't leave until 9:30 p.m. yesterday.

"I'm so mad and disgusted," said Saunders, adding that the stress had made her vomit.

First, Travelers Aid offered sympathy.

"It's a disgrace," Saunders sputtered.

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