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Volunteers help travelers find their way

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Their coats are red, but they aren't the kind of "red coats" Paul Revere warned his fellow countrymen about during his famous midnight ride.

These "red coats" are the 53 Host Volunteers who offer assistance to travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. They wear red coats, or shirts in some cases, so they can be easily identified by travelers.

The volunteers man an information desk in the atrium; hand out Ziplock bags to people approaching the security checkpoints; escort visually impaired people, and senior citizens to their gates on each concourse, and sometimes, help stranded travelers make arrangements for a new flight.

Bilingual volunteers are stationed on Concourse "E," which handles the international flights.

"They are just good people who love being around other people and offering good customer service," said Brenda Sims, the airport's volunteer coordinator. "There are so many people coming through the airport, and the customer service representatives, who are the people in the green jackets, spend so much of their time in the security areas, so sometimes there aren't enough people to spread out across the rest of the airport.

"Once people see the red shirt, or the red coat, they know that person is here to help."

Hartsfield-Jackson's volunteer program will recognize each Host Volunteer on April 25 during a luncheon in the airport's Gateway Conference Room. Each volunteer will receive a plaque recognizing his or her commitment to customer service at the airport.

The Host Volunteer program began in 1996, as Atlanta was preparing to host the Olympics. The security check points, the information desks and the international concourse are the areas where the volunteers are needed most, because of traveler demand, Sims said.

"A lot of times, people want directions like 'How do I find the ticket counter?' or even 'How do I get to a particular suburb?'" said Bill Meyers, who volunteers at the information desk every Wednesday.

"The most unusual questions I get are: 'Why isn't there a hotel in the airport?' or 'Why don't you have showers in the airport?' " added Gwen Denham, who works at the information desk with Meyers.

Many of the volunteers are retirees, who used to work in customer service jobs, but some are students from North Clayton, Morrow, Fayetteville and East Point high schools, who volunteer after school and on the weekends. All of the volunteers work in four-hour shifts.

"They always go above and beyond their assigned duties," Sims said. "A few weeks ago, we had a Korean woman who arrived at the airport late and missed her flight. She ended up sleeping overnight in the airport as a result. The cost to buy a ticket for another flight was going to be $5,000, so she was upset about that.

"One of our volunteers worked with the ticket representative and he was able to get the woman a lower price for the ticket. He ended up saving the woman thousands of dollars."

Charles Campbell, who has been a Host Volunteer, off and on, for the last four years, chose to be a volunteer because he'd been around airplanes since he was 17, and "can't get it out of my blood." He worked as an airline mechanic, for Delta Air Lines, and then AirTran Airways before he became a volunteer in 2004.

He said the key to doing his job is to approach any traveler who has a look of confusion on his or her face, and to know where everything is, so the traveler isn't given bad directions.

"A lot of people have anxieties going on when they arrive at the airport," Campbell said. "All at the same time, they are thinking about how they have to check-in, go through the security checkpoint, and make it to their gate before the plane is boarded. With that in mind, I let any harsh things they may say to me roll off my back."