They are the endangered species of the airline business. Slowly but surely during the last few years, they have been disappearing from airline terminals across America.
I'm talking about the "redcoats," the "special services" executives, and the senior "passenger service" agents that once upon a time could be found working at just about every airport in the country.
Within the structure and operations of their respective airlines, these were among the most knowledgeable folks on the ground. They knew the right ticket agents, seat allocations, in-flight catering folks and secret phone numbers to be able to save the day for countless passengers.
Traditionally, these special airline employees were given tremendous discretion and flexibility (and authority) to achieve impossible feats.
They were the airlines' ambassadors of good faith and good will. And they delivered. They performed radical computer surgery and revalidated a passenger's airline ticket. They authorized hotel rooms and paid for meals when flights were delayed or canceled. They met flights with unaccompanied minors or physically disabled passengers. They delivered important messages.
For frequent fliers they did everything from holding airplanes those extra few minutes to lending money to harried executives who showed up at the airport without any cash. These people did just about everything. But with the exception of a few major airports in the United States, it's difficult to find these folks anymore. They're nearly extinct.
It seems that they've been replaced by nameless ticket and gate agents whose responsibilities have been severely limited to getting as many people on and off airplanes as quickly as possible.
Got a problem? A last-minute request? A special need? Good luck.
"Most of the airlines just don't care about this kind of service anymore," says one gate agent at the San Francisco airport. "They cut it out for cost purposes two years ago in favor of marketing for volume travelers."
Decline in Service
One airline official argues that, since deregulation, the quality of air passengers has declined so drastically that "many don't deserve someone in special services."
But all is not bleak. There are some pleasant exceptions. In a few major cities--Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas--you can still find these special services employees working.
One of them is Ginny Borowski at American Airlines in Chicago. Each day Borowski arrives at O'Hare Airport a little after 4 a.m. to prepare for the early morning onslaught of passengers and flights.
When she arrives there are already 40 messages waiting for her, alerting her to important arrivals and departures, passengers needing assistance, and passengers demanding assistance.
Between 6 and 8:45 a.m. American has nearly 50 departures. Borowski zips between American's 26 gates, handling corporate chief executives, lost children and incoming VIPs from the West Coast connecting to other American flights.
Incredibly, the 23-year American Airlines veteran is able to match virtually every face with a name, recognizing past passengers almost before they recognize her.
In New York, American has Mary Strain, the airline's queen of the day shift at John F. Kennedy Airport. Supported by a staff of three, Strain is also Ms. Fix-It as she moves from gate to gate anticipating problems, solving others. Strain is a whiz at knowing--and remembering--airplane types, seating configurations, weather, dates, places and names.
In Atlanta, Delta still employs its "redcoats"--supervisors who "float" among terminals dressed in red jackets. They have the authority to rewrite tickets, upgrade passengers and occasionally even hold an airplane at the gate.
Eastern's 'Lone Ranger'
In Chicago, chief agent David Vanderlinden is Eastern Airlines' Lone Ranger. And Vanderlinden does everything short of wearing a mask and riding a horse through O'Hare. He's the man to see if you're flying Eastern to, from or through Chicago.
But what if you can't find a guy like Vanderlinden? Or you've got a problem in Dayton, Ohio, or Milwaukee? Chances are good that the airline you're flying doesn't have an aggressive special services program in place. Chances are even greater that your airline has none at all.
If that's the case, try to keep your cool, for starters. Problem-solving requires more than just being assertive--it's essential that you speak to the right person at the airline. Assume that the first, second and possibly even the third person you're dealing with doesn't have the authority to help you. Simply ask for a supervisor, and then the supervisor's supervisor, until you find someone who does have the clout to save the day.
Each airline still employs a "lead" or "chief" agent at airports it serves. With luck you can find him or her in time to help. If you're flying American into or out of Los Angeles, you're in luck. Dick Jennings and Jan Olson run the airline's special services office at LAX.