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Help on the fly
No, Travelers Aid volunteers can't summon a limo, but they can get you moving in the right direction

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.

* * *

On a recent Thursday, one of the busiest days of the week because of the convergence of business and leisure travelers, Harvey invited me to guest-volunteer. I wanted to be on the front line of the help desk to learn about the travails of the modern-day voyager and see how the aides resolved even the knottiest problems.

Normally, Dulles newbies have to attend orientation, a half-day commitment that involves a thorough review of the "bible," an overstuffed binder filled with emergency numbers, airline contacts, nearby hotels, transportation services and other invaluable information. Then they have to shadow an experienced volunteer and pass a background check, which grants access through security. At the end of the process, they receive a bright blue blazer that has the magical power of drawing questions out of strangers.

Because I was a special case (more observer than assistant, or so I thought), I was exempt from the requirements, though I did score a jacket. Embarrassingly enough, I had to ask the volunteers for the whereabouts of the restroom.

Harvey installed me at the capacious station near baggage claim 4 on the lower level. I was surrounded by pads and pens, brochures for area attractions and computers streaming flight updates.

About 80 percent of the volunteers are retired, and the majority share the wanderlust gene. "Most of us here like travel and airports," said Holly Harrison, a former guidance counselor in Virginia and my co-volunteer during the 2-6 p.m. shift. "And I like the problems of travel."

A fair number of queries could easily be resolved if the questioners would simply look up at the signs or ask their arriving friends or family members for a flight number. As Dave Ginsburgh, a 10-year volunteer, summed it up, "They want to know if the plane has gotten here yet or has Joe Smith arrived." (For the former, the volunteers check the flight data on their screens; for the latter, they don't have access to passenger manifests and therefore answer as if they had been asked the first question.) Many of the vignettes, however, have dramatic arcs: parents meeting their adopted child for the first time; political refugees seeking asylum; a mother flying to Saudi Arabia to retrieve her teenage son, who had been abducted by his father as a 10-year-old and was in a coma after a devastating car accident. Lifetime network, are you listening?

Here's Clif Heady, a seven-year volunteer: "A man asked me if there was any place to lie down because he was not feeling well. I told him I was going to call the paramedics. He said that was not necessary. I told him, 'If it's a bad, then it's my bad.' The paramedics came with a gurney and an EKG machine. He was having a heart attack."

Heady again: "This lady was yelling at me in Korean. She was as nutty as a fruitcake. She wanted to know why [President] Bush didn't send a limo to pick her up. . . . The police came to deport her. Two weeks later, she showed up again, asking for Congress's number. She was still upset that Bush hadn't sent her a car. It turned out she was living in the airport, taking bird baths in the ladies' room."

The morning volunteers were still talking about an incident from the night before. A woman had arrived at the airport to meet her elderly father, who had flown in from Russia that afternoon and spoke only his native tongue. After several hours, he still hadn't exited customs. It took numerous calls to airport officials and tours of the terminals to track him down. Father and daughter were finally reunited near the baggage claim, a touching denouement to a trying day.

"There was kissing and hugging, and I thought, 'This is why I do this,' " said Harvey. "These are the situations that really hit you in the heart."

During the first half of the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, we had no ER crisis, delusional divas or missing pops. We mainly fielded questions concerning restroom locations (this one I could now answer), transportation to downtown Washington (Metro bus 5A) and where to get a good steak (Harry's Tap Room in the main terminal). Come lunchtime, the deluge hit.

It started with the wife of a passenger named Walter Rodman, who called the desk asking to have him paged. His flight to Charlottesville had been canceled, and she had some alternative ideas she wanted to share. At the same time, the three Floridians, two sisters and the husband of one, appeared. Heady and I looked into upcoming flights to Tampa. I called to see whether any had available seats. No luck. Michell Evans inquired about renting a car to drive south. I warned her about the high cost of dropping off a car in a location different from the pickup site. The next idea: They would rent a car and drive back to their brother's house, book a flight online and fly out the next day. I found them a vehicle and directed them to the shuttle. They walked away with a plan and renewed hope.

* * *

When you're behind the desk, the needy come to you. But Travelers Aid also uses mobile guides who scour the area for the dazed and disoriented. Andy and Mac Cassells are a grandfather-grandson team who spend Saturday afternoons roaming Concourse B, beyond security, where many international visitors wander aimlessly looking for their bags, for gates and for smoking lounges.

Grandpa Cassells, a former Washington bureau chief for Cox Communications, has been bringing Mac to the airport since the now-high-school-sophomore was 8 years old. "I think it's very good for him because he has learned to relate to people older than himself and is not reluctant to ask people what they need," said Andy, who worked at Reagan National's outpost before switching to Dulles after 9/11. "And it gives me a great chance to spend time with him."

Cassells Sr. had no qualms about approaching people, whether they required help or not. "I have an aversion to sitting down," he said. "I don't think as many people ask you questions." (Mac hung back a little ways.) Near the international terminal, he swooped in on folks staring at the flight arrival board or lingering in the hall looking clueless. Most people appreciated his guidance, though one older man refused his assistance with an abrupt, "No, I can read."

Once through security, the Cassellses unlocked their headquarters, a stand filled with brochures. They fielded questions about the location of Qatar Airways and the British Airways lounge. A woman in mock distress asked for the nearest Cinnabon. Andy said it was outside security and suggested Dunkin' Donuts instead. "I must have a Cinnabon. They don't have them in Germany," exclaimed the young woman. "I don't like doughnuts. They make you fat."

Asked about the value-added tax, Andy informed the woman that Virginia doesn't have one. "Most of the people you help go away happy," he said. "Even if it's just finding them a bathroom."

When I returned to the desk on the lower level, Heady and Harrison were packing up so that the last shift of the day (6-9 p.m.) could take over. According to their records, they had logged 61 airline assists, one page, 49 airport information queries, 28 transportation questions, two about museums and 10 phone calls. I also learned that Walter Rodman had rented a car and driven to Charlottesville.

I was about to hang up my blue blazer when a tall, spindly man in a red rugby shirt approached. In a soft voice, he explained that he had just flown in from Kenya and missed his connection to Des Moines. He had been rebooked on the next flight, which departed the following morning, and needed a place to stay.

Calling United's hotel hotline for stranded passengers, I found a vacancy, but he couldn't afford the $69 rate. He said he would sleep at the airport and asked for a safe place to rest. I figured that it would be quieter and cozier beyond security, so we went upstairs to ticketing and secured his boarding pass. Because it was dated the next day, he couldn't pass through until midnight. I pointed out the security checkpoint, then escorted him to the seating downstairs in baggage claim. As I walked away, I saw him sitting serenely in his chair, his one small bag at his feet.

I hoped that he would go to security at the appropriate time, find a comfortable stretch of seats and board the plane in the morning. I wanted him to arrive safely in Iowa and have a wonderful stay. As Harvey had told me earlier in the day, "We try to believe that it all works out. We like to have happy endings." I'd done what I could. Now it was up to him.

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