Travelers Aid volunteers help thousands at D.C. airports

'Tis the season for overwhelming travel, but never fear; Travelers Aid volunteers are here to help thousands of passengers find their way through Dulles and Reagan National airports and Union Station, during the crazy holiday season and beyond.
By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, November 22, 2009

The trio of Floridians approached the Travelers Aid desk at Washington Dulles deeply flustered, one mishap short of distress. In a breathless chorus, they explained that they had tried to purchase tickets for a flight to Tampa an hour before departure, but the agent had refused their form of payment: a brother's credit card number scrawled on a piece of paper. They'd then tried to reserve by phone but had been put on hold for too long and missed the booking window. The Southwest flight had lifted off without them. To add to the drama, they were tight on cash, had no cellphones, and the brother they'd been visiting lived 100 miles away.

"Can you help us?" asked Michell Evans, a petite brunette whose head barely bobbed above the counter's edge. "We need to get home."

Travelers Aid to the rescue.

No question is too small and no quandary too complicated for the airport volunteers, a cadre of caregivers in an industry that has become increasingly antagonistic and impatient. The stresses of travel -- catching flights, finding bags, changing currencies, getting lost in the foreignness of place and culture -- can paralyze passengers of varying worldliness, turning even the simplest matter into a Sisyphean challenge. Where's ticketing, baggage claim, ground transportation, the gate? Can you help me find a hotel room, my cellphone, Starbucks, my mother? I think I'm at the wrong airport.

Displaying the skills of a travel agent moonlighting as a detective, the men and women in blue (blazers) are at the ready for whatever questions are zinged their way. They hunt down cheap accommodations, send out APBs on lost gadgets, look up flight times and even played Oz for three stranded Floridians.

"I know just what to do because I've been there. I know what to tell them," said three-year volunteer Phyllis Wlotzko, a former gate agent with United. "I would've done anything to have Travelers Aid at Charles de Gaulle Airport."

Travelers Aid has been assisting people on the go since the early days of mobility, when mid-19th-century pioneers heading west with dreams of riches and adventure were often stalled by such realities as cholera and stagecoach snags. The country's oldest nonsectarian nonprofit organization was formed in St. Louis by Bryan Mullanphy, a bighearted mayor who couldn't stand to see a traveler in need of food, drink, shelter or a friend. (After his death in 1851, he left half a million dollars to the cause.)

The group now has outposts in 24 states, the District, Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia. In the Washington area, TA kiosks appear in Dulles, Reagan National and Union Station. Dulles boasts the largest presence, with five desks and about 230 volunteers. (Reagan National has 150 helpers; Union Station about 50.) Between January and July, the Dulles volunteers assisted 477,994 of the nearly 13.5 million passengers who used the airport. Last Thanksgiving eve, the craziest day of the travel calendar, they helped 3,016 holiday-bound.

With the approaching completion of the AeroTrain, the transport system that will replace Dulles's mobile lounges, and the confusion that will ensue, TA's program manager at the Virginia airport has received permission to nearly double her force to 400. "We have added two new desks on the mezzanine level," said Sally Harvey, who glamorized her uniform blazer with a colorful scarf. "We want people to see us when they get off the train." Her goal is to recruit and prep the additional aides by next spring.

Despite the program's widespread expansion over the decades, TA's original mission remains unadulterated: to help stranded folks. "There are a lot of distressed people who fear the unknown," said Ford Moseley, an Air Force retiree who has been volunteering for two years. "Our job is to smile and keep smiling."

One might quip that what most of the people at the airport need is not a savior but a better travel agent. Those naysayers haven't worked a shift yet.

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