Wait . . . is this San Diego?
We are Traveler's Aid...about eighty volunteers in four hour shifts assisting airport guests from early morning until late into the evening. We never know for sure what is going to occur, but we prepare for the unexpected. Tonight was a "Diversion." No...this is NOT San Diego.
Definition of "diversion": (1) the act of changing the direction (2) something that people do because it is enjoyable (3) something that takes attention away from what is happening.
Definitions one and three have some relevance to the story, but definition number two probably would not score very high related to the Blog topic.
It was nearing the conclusion of our evening shift, and "lock up" was soon to be getting underway, when one of the airport police officers casually walked by and mentioned that Lindbergh Field in San Diego, California was completely fogged in and some flights were being diverted to Ontario International Airport, one-hundred and twenty miles to the north. Thus, definition number two has no merit. We knew what that meant. My Traveler's Aid partner Ginny, was calm, collected, confident and at ease, as usual, having been a Traveler's Aid volunteer for nearly ten years. For me, being relatively new at this, it would be an unforgettable but rewarding evening.
With little more than ten minutes warning, diversion instructions were reviewed, resource materials prominently displayed, relevant hotel and car rental phone number lists at the ready and we stood up...waiting.
And then they came . . . the first of the five full planes began their descent from the arrival level to the street level. Although most of the passengers had been informed to assemble in the east end of the baggage area, it would become apparent that soon there could be eight or nine hundred, frustrated, angry, tired and confused travelers on our doorstep -- actually in "our house". The other reality was that they were not going to re-board the aircraft for a continued flight to San Diego. "That ship had sailed," so to speak. Ginny and I greeted each passenger with a smile, a welcome and directions on retrieving their belongings and where to assemble for further instructions. There were travelers connecting from Europe nearing the end of a twenty-hour journey, mothers with infants, families with children, business people needing to prepare for the next morning's sales presentations, unaccompanied minors, folks that didn't speak English, girlfriends meeting boyfriends, military personnel being deployed and the list goes on and on. The noise level along with the foot traffic on the polished tile floors was increasing as each successive group descended the escalators.
Where were the airline personnel? Most were up at the arrival gates answering questions, giving directions and trying to make quick sense of what was to happen from the airlines' perspective. They were also coordinating efforts with airport police, ground crews, flight officers and airport management.
Back in the reception area, the crowd was getting larger, nearly filling the terminal. Still no airline personnel. That's when my wonderful partner confidently said, "Why don't YOU go down there and let them know what is going to happen?" Good one Ginny! Are you kidding me? This was a feeding frenzy and I was the bait. Or did she really say, "GO OVER THERE AND ASSURE THEM THAT HELP IS ON THE WAY!" It's a bit blurry now, but of course I said, "Sure, I'll go". I was thinking Romans, gladiators, lions and all I had was a red vest with a dozen flag pins and a clipboard. This was going to be great fun. In my college years I was a recreation director and later a public school classroom teacher. "Retrieve that voice", I said to myself. I walked to the center of the group (potential mob), smiled and in that special deep, solid, loud voice said, "Welcome to Ontario International Airport. My name is Gary and I am a VOLUNTEER with Traveler's Aid." Of course, what I was thinking was that if I'm perceived as a mere mortal, a volunteer, they were less likely to "shoot the messenger". We would see...I assured them that everything possible was being done to assist them in completing their journey to their planned destinations in the shortest time possible. Both, my partner and I reinforced the theme that all would be good and that the airport personnel would soon be here to explain all the details. So far, no fists, knives or swords. I also reassured them that coaches had been ordered by the airlines to take them to San Diego. (Coaches sounds so much better than buses.) Coaches lend back to the Royals and riding in luxury in white horse drawn, plush carriages, while busses conjure up images of chewing gum on the floor, odors of stale tuna sandwiches, hazy windows, torn seats, pollutant belching, out-of-date yellow school buses. "Coaches" was the way to go!
Ginny was multi-tasking at the information desk giving out information on car rental agencies, shuttle services and local hotels. She was also reassuring our guests that this little excitement in today's travel world would end well. Since more and more travelers were converging on the street level concourse, we had to repeat announcements and reassurance every couple of minutes while also answering specific questions.
Ask for questions! Okay, I did.
Q: Where can we get something to eat? (Remember, domestic airlines don't serve in flight meals.)
A: We have vending machines in the corner. Ughhhhh...
Q: I don't want to wait for the buses (please use the term "coaches"), so how else can I get home?
A. Rental cars, friends, limousine hire, SuperShuttle.
Q: My fiancé is meeting me in San Diego. My phone battery is dead. How can I contact her?
A: We can dial the number for you and let you use our phone and do a quick charge.
Q: What would it cost to take a taxi to San Diego?
A: Don't do it! It could be $325.00
Q: I have been traveling from Europe and I'm exhausted. Can I get a hotel?
A: Yes, we would be happy to phone some of the local hotels and request a special discount stranded traveler rate. Their shuttle will pick you up today and bring you back tomorrow.
Q: How do I contact family who are waiting for me in San Diego?
A: Call them on your cell phone, use our phone or we can leave a message with the airline in San Diego.
Q: I don't speak English (Question not in English:-)
A: We will page an airport employee or other guest who will assist us in translating.
Q: Where is Ontario International Airport?
A: 120 miles north of San Diego, two hours by motor coach or a four day walk:-)
Q: Where am I?
A: Ontario International Airport, the jewel of the Inland Empire and with people who will assist you in getting you to your destination. Smile.
The ocean of arriving passengers continues and now it's nearly 11:00 p.m, two hours past our normal closing time. Wait, here come the coaches! Southwest passengers to the far right of the taxi stand, American Airlines straight out to the other side of the median strip and U.S. Air, just to the left of the terminal exit. REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT. They begin to move to their respective areas.
Assist the limited English speaking person.
Snacks for the Mom with young children. (We had some extra quarters.)
Assist the mom with baby, carriage and luggage (It's been awhile but I can help with this.)
Talk loudly for the folks with hearing impairments.
Look for people with mobility issues that may need assistance.
Be aware of anyone looking confused.
FINALLY...the last passengers had boarded the motor coaches and the last vehicle slowly pulled away from the curb.
We put everything away, locked the cabinets and walked through the automatic doors out of the terminal. We looked back to see a quiet empty space as though nothing had happened. We wished all those still traveling, a good ending to a long day.
They're always welcome to come back!