BY TEREY DeLISLE
Holiday travel can be exciting. It can also be stressful, exhausting and overwhelming, especially when you are traveling by air.
At Detroit Metro Airport, that doesn’t have to be the case. Look no further than the friendly faces and blue vests of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport Ambassadors. This dedicated team of volunteers — whose mission is, “to provide a helping hand to travelers along their journey and enhance their experience while visiting the airport” — is located at information desks located in each terminal or around the airport looking for customers in need of assistance. Their wealth of knowledge and helpful demeanor will put the most frazzled traveler at ease.
The Ambassadors program is managed through the Customer Service Department of the Wayne County Airport Authority — Fran Wood is customer service manager and John Orner is the customer service supervisor. Orner is a Trenton High graduate.
Wood explained that the program began in 2009, branching off from the Travelers Aid Society. When the new North terminal opened, the Airport Authority recognized that travelers needed assistance navigating the new space. Although the individual airlines can help with flights, people needed more help in general.
Wood said that there are currently 82 volunteers, ranging in age from 16 to 94.
“We’d like 200,” she said. “We have a lot of gaps to fill. The goal is to blanket the airport with volunteers.”
With flights coming in from all over the world, the need for bi-lingual volunteers is big.
“We have Royal Jordan Airlines, Lufthansa, various Asian countries coming in,” Wood said. “We use a translation service, but having someone who can speak directly to travelers would be a great addition.”
Sam Gemus of Southgate has been an Ambassador for eight years, staffing the information booth at baggage claim at the North terminal. Gemus works four hours a day at North Terminal and four at McNamara. Celebrity sightings, military family reunions and the occasional royalty passing through are some of the exciting moments he experiences, but he says that helping lost or confused travelers is the most rewarding part of his day.
“Those moments are the most satisfying,” he said. “It’s a job where you feel good every day when you go home.”
The position does come with some perks.
“No, we can’t offer free air travel,” said Wood. “But volunteers do receive free airport parking anytime, as well as at least a 10 percent discount at airport stores and restaurants.”
“Twenty percent at the PGA store!” Gemus pointed out.
Some volunteers have been Ambassadors for more than 20 years. Recognition for hours of service, bronze, silver and gold stars, and presidential recognition are given at awards luncheons given by the Authority. Also, behind-the-scenes tours not open to the general public, such as the firehouse, airfield, and baggage handling are some favorite extras.
Volunteers also get “double time” credit for working holidays, which helps them get to their next level of service. So far this year, the Airport Ambassadors have clocked 13,936 volunteer hours and assisted with 92,484 inquiries from customers.
The group boasts several representatives from Trenton, including Ron Andrews, who started in 2014, Michael Bolan, (2014), Sharon Kelly, (2005) and John Narbut, (2010).
Ambassadors’ duties aren’t just announcing “white zone is for loading and unloading of passengers only.” Orner explained that the volunteers serve as information specialists who are trained to assist passengers in many ways.
“There is a full process of training and orientation before volunteers work on their own,” Orner said. “They need to become experts in weather, area events, directions, TSA regulations, everything,” as well as flight status, baggage claim, gate locations, ground transportation, lost items and providing directions for visitors to local places and events. The training program is five weeks long, and involves shadowing a seasoned Ambassador.
Perhaps most importantly, Airport Ambassadors are truly representatives for the metro Detroit area. They are often the first people that travelers meet, and can shape their view of our area from the moment someone lands at Detroit Metro. Ambassadors can make a real difference — from suggesting needed signage, to helping families locate each other.
Ruth Bumbar of Redford, who has served as an Ambassador for four and a half years, mans the station at a “decision point” — as travelers enter the airport from the parking garage. Travelers are often unsure where to go next, or how to find their ride. That’s where Ruth comes in, helping travelers know what to do when they are entering or leaving the airport.
“It’s a job where you truly are needed,” said Bumbar.
Ambassadors also are trained to deal with security situations such as abandoned luggage or suspicious activity, and are the “eyes and ears” of the airport, said Bumbar.
If you are traveling this holiday season, the Ambassadors offer some holiday travel tips.
Check the TSA website for updated carry-on and security information. Don’t bring wrapped gifts and arrive early for your flight.
The best travel tip may be to look for that blue-vested expert to help make your trip smooth and enjoyable. To learn more about becoming an Airport Ambassador, visit www.metroairport.com/volunteer or email AirportAmbassador@wcaa.us.