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Helping Travelers in Trouble Find Their Way Again

From Finding Lost Luggage to Deciphering Airline Ticket Codes, Group's Volunteers in O.C. and L.A. Are Trained to Trouble-Shoot Any Situation

September 04, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frances Sotcher is role-playing. She is a foreign tourist, seeking help in some incomprehensible language.

No problem for her students. They are Travelers Aid volunteers, and after weeks of schooling they know their Ps and Qs, as well as their AZ (Alitalia), PL (Aero Peru) and TBIT (Tom Bradley International Terminal).

If she were a real traveler in distress, they tell her, they'd simply pull out a reference sheet and have her point to her native tongue, then connect her to an AT&T language line operator who speaks one of 140 tongues from Azerbaijani to Waray-Waray.

Sotcher, director of volunteers for the Travelers Aid Society of Los Angeles, is pleased. An exceptional class. Of 31 who started, 29 will finish and join the 300 volunteers who staff nine booths at Los Angeles International Airport daily from early morning until late evening.

Travelers who seek help--more than 700,000 did in 1995--know them by their red jackets. What's not so well-known is that they undergo 21 hours of rigorous training over seven weeks and serve a six-month internship before earning their badges.

"We have a fair attrition rate, and we expect it," Sotcher says, "but if they hang in there, they usually stay with us awhile."

Students in this class journey through a world of bus schedules, customs queries and car rentals. Early on, Ed West, a lead volunteer and trainer, sets the tone. The forbidden words: "I don't know." A TA volunteer will find out.

Someone's grandmother is due in from Cincinnati but forgot to mention the airline? No problem. A tourist has six hours to kill and no idea of where to go? A piece of cake.

"You can kind of size them up," says trainer Beverly Sumetz--decide whether they'd be wowed by the Hollywood Wax Museum or the Huntington Library.

Thumbing through loose-leaf notebooks and Rolodexes, volunteers learn which airlines use which gates, how to decipher ticket codes and baggage-tag shorthand. They learn what to do in medical emergencies, how to weed out con artists. And they learn that they must never accept a weapon for safekeeping or stash packages or luggage.

The reward for those who finish: a commitment to staff a booth three or four hours a week.

There are fewer volunteers available to staff the one booth at Long Beach Airport--only two from the Travelers Aid Society of Long Beach.

And there are no volunteers assigned to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, which is also within the Long Beach office's territory.

"I tried to get into John Wayne Airport but wasn't so successful," says James Smith, executive director of the Long Beach society. "They have an information booth there with paid people working it."

Travelers Aid "is something we've considered might be done one of these days," says Maudette Ball, chief of community relations at John Wayne Airport. "Right now, we don't have a lot of transient population coming in from overseas who may not be familiar with the language or customs or monetary system.

"We're primarily a business person's airport. As we get more heavily into the tourist market, the need may become greater."

Nonetheless, Travelers Aid of Long Beach maintains an office in Garden Grove staffed by one part-time worker and one volunteer. They assist people with bus tickets to homes out of the area, local bus transportation to job interviews or medical appointments, emergency food and lodging for needy travelers and phone calls home for runaways.

Smith said his board of directors is exploring a merger with the Los Angeles society.

"It's just at the talking stages at present," he says.

So what motivates a Travelers Aid volunteer?

When Fred Kessler--on business in New York--had his pocket picked by a thief who slashed his clothing, "a Travelers Aid volunteer assisted me while I held my pants together." Besides, his grandmother was a TA volunteer.

Tricia Hepp, who works for a Japanese-owned insurance company, sees it as a chance to make friends in other countries. Sotcher says that TA clients may say, "If you're ever in Hong Kong, stop for lunch . . . and our volunteers do."

Trainees learn that a TA volunteer never plays favorites. As trainer John Harrison emphasizes, "just because you like some hotel, that's not the one you refer them to. . . . You do not get a star for that." And, he adds, trainees are instructed not to assume anything about travelers by their appearance. Anybody can look disheveled after a 14-hour flight. "They'll be insulted if you refer them to a $39.50 room and they're thinking $120."

It goes without saying that volunteers don't accept tips, but there's a donation box at each booth for those wishing to say thank you.

Some travelers, however, may be tired, anxious and downright nasty. Volunteers are told, "Keep calm. . . . Just don't get hostile." The key words here are "pleasant," "professional" and "polite."

One class session is devoted to casework--what to do for the traveler who's stranded, broke or in trouble.

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