Glad songs and cider to soothe the savage traveler

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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."

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.

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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.

That means when would-be travelers arrive at the airport they are likely to see cranes, heavy construction equipment, and lots of hard hats. Minneapolis and Memphis, Tenn., are adding a new runways. Detroit and Philadelphia have opened up new terminals. JFK in New York has major construction going on and Austin recently opened up a new airport.

"It seems like everything is under construction," says Brent Bowen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Newark International, which is in the middle of a $3.8 billion improvement. There will be new roadways, garages, an international arrivals terminal, and an updated control tower.

What that means today is delays.

As Lt. Michael Toomey, a tour commander for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, drives around the airport, he pulls his white Ford Crown Victoria onto an airplane taxiway. Once travelers get on their flights, he says, they may join a line of planes that will stretch for almost two miles waiting to take off. The process could take as much as an hour.

As he swings his car back on the roadway, he says the congestion on the highways leading into the airport is likely to be worse than the runways. Because of construction, many of the roads are down to one lane. A monorail system that normally takes passengers between terminals is sidelined for repairs, so there are now 60 extra buses clogging the roads.

Construction has taken more than 1,000 parking spaces adjacent to Continental Airlines, which carries 60 percent of the airport's passengers. "This will be like one of the rings of 'Dante's Inferno,' " says the 20-year veteran as he scans the airport grounds.

If passengers manage to drive up to the terminal - some may just park their cars on the grass and make a run for it - they will be greeted by a double tour of whistle-blowing police officers. Although they will allow loading and unloading, the police are under orders to move traffic - even if it means using a tow truck.

"We will hook 'em and book 'em all day long," growls Mr. Toomey. "Everyone thinks their problem is the most important problem."

Airport officials are not oblivious to the potential for airport chaos. Construction stopped on Monday. At least one roadway was widened for holiday traffic. Assistant general manager John Jacoby has told every form of media that the public should leave at least an extra half hour earlier than what airlines suggest.

"Why add to the anxiety by making a last-minute dash to the airport?" he asks.

And to try to help passengers once they get inside the terminal, the airport will add additional red jackets. One of those will be Ada Cuadro, who specializes in dispensing jokes and love. She recently came across a man who was tossing around his luggage because of a plane delay. "Don't you think it would be better if they fixed the plane here?" she asked him.

"They can't send someone up there," she said as he calmed down. "During times like this we try to use a lot of empathy," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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