Airport greeters Volunteers answer passengers’ questions

Rae Ann Blyth (from left), Janie Polutta and Donna Bensen-Kennedy are three of 12 nonpaid, part-time volunteers who greet passengers and answer questions at Charleston International Airport.

Starr Alexander approached a woman at Charleston International Airport wearing a blue vest and holding a clipboard with a large question mark on the back of it.

“Where do I go to meet new arrivals?” said Alexander, a Columbia resident who had never been to Charleston International before.

The woman with the clipboard turned her head to check the arrival and departure board and told Alexander, who was there with her husband to greet their daughter coming home from a year away on military duty, she was in the right place.

“I was really nervous about coming to this airport for the first time,” Alexander said. “It’s a good idea to have friendly faces to help you. It’s refreshing, and it creates a comfort zone.”

The woman with the clipboard was Rae Ann Blyth, 65, of West Ashley.

The retired Citadel secretary is one of a dozen volunteers, mostly retirees, who are part of Charleston International’s fledgling Airport Ambassador program.

They aren’t paid, and they work whenever they want for a few hours each week with parking provided by the airport, but they have to be at least 18 years old, undergo a background check and aren’t allowed past security checkpoints, said airport spokeswoman Becky Beaman.

“They are there to help people with any questions they have,” Beaman said. “It’s really handy to have them here. We work here, but we are invisible for the most part.”

“I think it’s great,” Monique Hesseling of Philadelphia said as she passed through the airport on a business trip. “They are very friendly people, and, of course, it’s the Charleston way.”

And the ambassadors do more than steer people toward the bathrooms or tell them there are no concessions past the security gates.

“My first week on the job, a man was waiting around here near the bathrooms and he began to look frantic,” Blyth said.

“I approached him and he said he just spoke with his two young grandchildren that he was picking up and he told them he would meet them near the bathrooms after they got off the plane.”

He had been waiting some time, and they didn’t show up.

They had used someone else’s cell phone to call the man, so he had no way of calling them back.

Blyth got an airport official, and they checked the women’s bathrooms on both sides of the airport lobby.

They then determined there was only one other place they could be. His grandchildren, who had not been to the airport before, were waiting outside the bathrooms on the concourse past the security checkpoint.

Another time, “I had a man whisper to me, ‘I am armed. Where do I go?’ ” Blyth said.

Usually, they are sky marshals or U.S. Border Patrol agents, and they are sent to a nearby Transportation Security Administration officer.

“I feel like we do serve a purpose other than answering questions such as, ‘Is there food on the other side?’ ” Blyth said.

She also added that people love to share their stories.

“I had two people tell me they were here to meet someone they met online,” Blyth said. “One was 82, and he was here to meet a doctor who was 66 from the Midwest. People will tell you anything.”

Volunteer Donna Bensen-Kennedy, 68, a retired library manager from New Jersey who now lives on Johns Island with her husband, had an interesting encounter as well.

Some greeters had come to the airport to pick up a passenger, only to learn that the passenger had mistakenly flown to Charleston, W.Va., instead.

“They had a copy of the ticket,” Bensen-Kennedy said. “The passenger had taken the wrong plane.”

She volunteered at the airport because she likes to give back and thought it would be fun.

“I like interacting with people,” said Bensen-Kennedy, who also volunteers as a guide at the South Carolina Aquarium and at the information desk at the Lowcountry Senior Center on James Island. “You can usually tell when someone has a question because they stop and hesitate.”

For Janie Polutta, 73, a former legal secretary from James Island and an avid exerciser, the airport volunteer program is a nice thing to do for passengers coming and going.

She remembers when a young woman with her grandparents seemed upset and hesitant to get on the plane.

“She came over and had a pair of scissors,” Polutta said.

The scissors belonged to the woman’s mother, and she didn’t want to lose them.

It’s not unusual for passengers to show up with small items like that, especially pocket knives, Beaman said.

And, of course, in the post-9/11 world, sharp items are not allowed on airplanes.

Passengers used to have to throw them away immediately before they went through security, but now they are directed to the airport information desk, where they can pay to mail the sharp objects to themselves if they want.

Soon, the airport ambassadors will become even bigger players at the airport.

Charleston International is about to embark on a $150 million makeover that will add six new gates, a rental car pavilion, a third baggage carousel, consolidated security lines and a total reconfiguration of the airport lobby and administrative offices.

“We will become very important then because nobody will know where anything is,” Bensen-Kennedy said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warren lancewise.