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When Dulles passengers call for help, Travelers Aid volunteers still answer — from home

During the pandemic, Travelers Aid International temporarily closed its information desks at Washington Dulles International Airport, but volunteers such as Glover Epperson continued to receive travelers’ calls from home. (Family photo)
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Travelers Aid International has been helping passengers at Washington Dulles International Airport since 1962, a streak that is still going strong. Though the pandemic forced the organization to close its information desks for several months, it did not disrupt the group’s mission to assist travelers. Since mid-March, a corps of dedicated volunteers has been answering questions about airport dining, duty-free shopping and other travel issues from their kitchens, dining rooms and sun rooms.

“In a four-hour shift, you may only get three to five calls, but somewhere in there you’re going to make a difference in somebody’s day,” said Glover Epperson, a 75-year-old volunteer who has been answering calls from his home in Ashburn, Va. “We are not so much telling someone where the bathroom is like before but telling them when their loved ones are coming back.”

Travelers Aid, an international nonprofit organization that helps individuals in distress, closed 12 of its information desks at Dulles on March 13 and the remaining two on April 1. However, instead of suspending service as many of its other airports did, the Dulles division decided to redirect the phone calls from travelers to volunteers standing by — or more likely sitting comfortably — at home. Signs posted at the desks ask “Need help?” and list the Virginia phone number for off-site assistance.

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“While helping travelers in person was becoming increasingly prohibitive, a great deal of people still needed assistance as more travel restrictions took shape and borders closed,” said Tina Mally, the assistant program manager of Travelers Aid-Dulles. “Our group of volunteers still wanted to lend a hand, so providing remote phone assistance was an outlet for many who were feeling the call to help while stuck at home.”

Before the pandemic, nearly 400 volunteers participated in the program, and about 50 volunteers worked the desks each day. Since the organization switched to remote, about 40 volunteers have remained active in the program, with three people answering calls daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The volunteers receive fewer than 10 calls a day, but Mally said the volume often spikes when a new travel restriction is announced or an airline cancels its flights. In March, April and May, volunteers responded to 35,861 queries made from the main terminal and concourse desks and remotely. During the same period last year, they fielded more than 347,000 questions from the same locations.

On June 1, Travelers Aid reopened two physical desks run by four volunteers and a mobile position “to address the growing yet sporadic nature of passenger traffic,” Mally said. A few days later, it added another mobile unit. Mally does not know when the remaining counters will return, but even when fully operational, the organization may continue the new calling option.

“We hope to retain remote service capabilities for the future,” she said, “especially considering that many of our volunteers experience health or mobility issues.”

The volunteers at home and the few at Dulles log all of their calls and assists. We were curious about what travelers were asking during these tumultuous times and how the volunteers were lending a hand — and an ear, too. Here is a snapshot from the past several weeks.

May 21: Epperson receives a call from a traveler who is looking for food before his 9:15 p.m. flight, which boards at 8:30. Concessions at concourses D, C and A close at 7:45. The passenger has 45 minutes to race over to Wendy’s in B and return to his gate in D. Epperson’s shift is over, so he calls him back on his cellphone in case the traveler needs help navigating the airport. At 8, the passenger starts walking from D to C to catch the train to A. Epperson is not sure the shuttle is running, so he texts him closer food options available at newsstands. At 8:10, the traveler calls to say he is in A and walking to B. He orders his dinner — a bag of burgers — and is back at his gate a few minutes after 8:30. “This is the most excitement I’ve had in months,” Epperson quips.

May 26: Bill Babash, a 55-year-old in Reston, takes a call from a woman seeking the pickup location of an unaccompanied dog who is flying into Dulles from Atlanta via Austin on American Airlines. Babash reaches out to the airline to determine whether the animal will arrive as checked baggage or cargo. The airline employee passes along the phone number for the cargo department, which Babash gives to the caller. During the exchange, he realizes that the Austin leg is not typical routing for American Airlines but is common on Southwest. He advises the woman to confirm the flight details, to make sure she has the correct carrier. She checks her documents and discovers that the dog is connecting through the Dallas-Fort Worth airport — on American.

May 28: Kathleen Kelmelis, a 68-year-old resident of Vienna, assists a passenger arriving from Albany, N.Y., who requires help with his bags. She tells him that some porters and Skycaps are available, as well as Smarte Cartes. Then he asks for directions to the Air India counter, where he needs to check in for his next flight. She describes the route to the elevator.

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May 31: Keith Weber, 75, of Sterling, Va., speaks with a passenger who wants to know whether duty-free stores are open in Concourse C. He tells him they are closed. The caller also asks about long-term parking. Weber informs him that the economy lots are closed but he can park in Garage 1 and the terminal lots for the economy lot rate of $10 a day. The traveler says he will be away for a month. Weber assures him that his car will be safe as long as he does not exceed the 45-day limit.

June 1: Christine Moore, 75, of Oak Hill, Va., handles a query from an individual whose relatives are flying in from Iran and carrying a rug and a significant amount of cash. The person wants to know the customs regulations for these items. Moore reaches out to Customs and Border Protection. An officer gives her a number for the caller and tells Moore that the person must provide specific information about the cash, such as the amount, and the rug, such as its place of origin and intended use and whether it is hand-knotted or machine made.

June 2: Marilyn Dickman, 65, of Gainesville, Va., answers a call from an employee with the Defense Department’s Defense Logistics Agency, who says the office has a large shipment for the German Armed Forces Command but is unable to reach anyone from there. Dickman tracks down a number for the Reston base, plus a contact for Lufthansa cargo.

June 3: Jennifer Shen, 33, of Great Falls, Va., is positioned post-security at Concourse B when a woman who does not speak English approaches. The traveler needs help finding her gate and has only 20 minutes before boarding starts. She is carrying a Brazilian passport, so Shen pulls up Google Translate and says in Portuguese that she will take her there. On the way, she sets up WiFi on the traveler’s phone. The Brazilian traveler makes her flight in the nick of time.

June 4: Chris Temple, 68, of Reston, assists a passenger arriving at night from Miami. She is looking for transportation to Dupont Circle in Washington and is concerned about the protests and curfew. Temple tells her the buses and Metro are not running and suggests a taxi.

June 4: Carter Myers, 68, of McGaheysville, Va., is stationed at the information desk on the baggage claim level. During his shift, he reunites a woman with her lost purse and helps a person locate a package that was shipped on Ethiopian Airlines but was sitting in the cargo building. “I was glad to be of service in those ways,” he says, “despite the very small number of travelers.”

June 5: Pearl DiPasquale, 64, of Reston, offers advice to a man whose wife flew in from France and missed her connection to Boston because of the customs and immigration process. United had put her on a flight departing the following day, but she wanted to fly out earlier. DiPasquale checks the other airlines and finds an evening flight on American. The wife does not want to exit the secured area, so DiPasquale gives the husband directions to the airline’s ticket counter at Concourse B. She does not hear back from the husband and assumes the wife successfully booked the ticket.

June 6: A young man approaches Eve Wallin, 71, of Reston, at the desk on the baggage claim level. He has just arrived from Atlanta and is flying to Ethiopia the next day. He is looking for a hotel that is part of his reservation. Wallin doesn’t recognize the property’s name and goes online to check his reservation number on Ethiopian Air. She discovers that the reservation only includes flights and calls around for a local hotel with reasonable rates. Unfortunately, many are closed because of the pandemic. She finally reaches a hotel in Sterling that is offering a discounted rate and a bagged breakfast. She reminds the man to tell the hotel staff that he will need a ride to the airport three hours before his morning flight. She then walks him to a Washington Flyer taxi. “He was most appreciative of the effort,” she says.

June 8: At the desk on the departures level, a woman asks Derrick Thompson, 59, of Leesburg, for help finding the TSA checkpoint. He notices that she is visibly upset and escorts her to security. As they walk, she tells him that she is returning to Texas because of a spat with her son. She and her husband had driven a moving van from Texas to Virginia to deliver her son’s personal belongings. Along the way, his TV was damaged, and the son blamed the couple. The mother felt that her son was ungrateful, so she decided to cut the visit short and fly home. “She calmed down,” Thompson says, “and seemed to feel better after our conversation.”

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