Glad songs and cider to soothe the savage traveler
When some weary travelers get off their planes today at Newark International Airport, they will see Robert Baldwin, a Sammy Davis Jr. look-alike, crooning in the corridors: "Hello, my friends, welcome to Newark."Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Baldwin, a former hotel concierge, is a "red jacket," a greeter who does everything from give directions to the men's room to help people with overstuffed Samsonites. "He's often the first friendly face a traveler sees," says Michael Bekiarian, a supervisor.
Singing workers are just one way airports will be trying to ease the impact of a record number of travelers winging it to grandmother's house this week. From LAX in Los Angeles to New York's Laguardia, the nation's airports will move 20 million passengers over the holiday - more than the population of Texas.
Chicago's O'Hare Airport is offering passengers cider and gingerbread cookies at security checkpoints. In Austin, Texas, parking-lot attendants will act as white-gloved traffic cops, guiding people directly to open spaces. When they get inside the terminal, there will be live entertainment.
Yes, bring on the clowns: There's no question passengers flying this holiday period will need these efforts - and possibly more.
Once they get to the check-in counter, fliers may find out they've been grounded because of labor problems. During the past month, for example, United Airlines has had to cancel scores of flights because its mechanics refuse to work overtime. In fact, almost every major airline has at least one unhappy group of employees.
Yet others will face delays simply because there are so many people in the air. The 20.5 million people expected to travel over a 12-day period represent a 700,000-passenger increase from over a year ago, which itself was a record. With 85 percent of seats filled, there won't be a lot of stretch in the system. "Every plane will be in use - even senior executives will be on deck throwing luggage around," says David Stemper of the Air Travelers Association.
The crunch comes at a time when the public is unhappy with the service it's getting, despite small improvements in on-time performance, baggage handling, and overbooking. "It has not been noticed much by the consumer," says Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.
For the first eight months of this year, he says consumer complaints have been higher every month than 1999, which was a record year for dissatisfaction. "In some months, the complaints have actually doubled over last year - it's shaping up as a worse year," says Mr. Headley.
Both airlines and airports are more than aware of the discontent. As a result, they are focusing on ways to improve service. New parking garages, airport access roads, and control towers are popping up around the country. Jim Johnson, executive director of airport services for the American Association of Airport Executives, says he has heard of six new major projects that will cost $30 billion.
"We've been trying to keep up with demand which has been growing very significantly in recent years," says Mr. Johnson.