Airport shuttle drivers strive to give fast, friendly service

By Ed Brock

It was Dawn Peterson's first time in Atlanta, but lucky for her Lew Parham was her shuttle driver.

Cruising through downtown and Buckhead on a rainy day, Parham points out what landmarks he can through the murky weather. Turner Field, Atlanta City Hall, the golden dome of the Georgia Capitol building, Parham knows them all and more.

He talks about how that skyline has changed in the three decades since he's been living here in this city of 5 million people.

"When I came here 34 years ago, it was only 1.5 million," Parham said.

Peterson, like most of the people who step into the red and white van Parham drives for Atlanta Link at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, was utterly charmed.

"It seems like Southern hospitality at its best," Peterson said.

At 50, Parham has been a lot of things. Before coming to Atlanta Link a year ago he worked for five years teaching selling skills, and before that he spent 27 years working for the Atlanta Civic Center, starting as a utility person and retiring as a stage production manager.

A year ago Parham ran into Mike Dangerfield, owner of Atlanta Link.

"He knew me from back in the theater days and he told me what (Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin) was trying to get accomplished with the shuttle," Parham said.

Franklin wanted to provide an affordable alternative for visitors to the city who needed a ride from the airport to their hotels.

Atlanta Link is one of about 15 metro shuttle services operating out of Hartsfield-Jackson's Ground Transportation Division of the Atlanta Department of Aviation. Parham, for example, covers several routes, including two downtown routes with about 14 hotels, a Midtown route with seven to eight hotels and the Buckhead route with seven hotels.

On the downtown and Midtown routes the shuttles stop by the regular hotels every 30 minutes, while on the Buckhead route they stop at each regular hotel every hour, approximately. They also stop at certain hotels by reservation only.

"The main thing is to try to get to the hotel on time," Parham said.

That can be difficult during high-traffic times.

The service is open 24 hours, with drivers working in shifts, and inclement weather like the ice storm that recently turned Atlanta frosty white does not necessarily keep them from their duties.

"If the airport is open, we will run," Parham said.

Parham's shift is 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and he gets to work at about 6:15 a.m.

"My day starts with cleaning my vehicle, interior and exterior," Parham said.

Then he often waits at the Atlanta Link booth on Island C in the Ground Transportation area until a customer comes for a ride. After delivering those customers to their hotels, Parham calls in to dispatch to see what other routes he should cover for the return trip.

He usually carries 18 to 36 passengers a day, up to nine passengers at a time in his van, but on busy days that can go up to 36 or 40 passengers a day.

"I have carried up to 48 passengers in one day," Parham said.

In all his jobs, Parham learned one thing that has transcended all of his careers: It's all about the customer.

The people he carries come from all over the world, and their attitudes vary as much as their points of origin.

But Parham has the skills to make their ride more comfortable.

"You have to build a relationship (with the customers)," Parham said. "Some start off not very talkative é by the time we leave everybody's in stitches."

Parham has had some passengers who are in a hurry, especially those on their way back to the airport.

"People have their concerns, but if you talk to them and let them know you'll get them to the airport on time, they're all right," Parham said.

Nine out of 10 times his customers buy round-trip tickets, and he often picks up extra customers who came into town by some other means.

He can sell them tickets from the van.

Parham is originally from Eatonton, Ga., where he is still a minister at Jefferson Baptist Church.

He is married with two grown sons, and likes art, baseball, reading and carpentry. He's currently remodeling his house in Decatur.

"I have a busy schedule," Parham said.