PORTLAND — As she settles into her new role, Portland resident Helen Barnes finds she can be stumped.
“I wasn’t sure how to get to Cushing Island,” she admitted as she talked about her first days as an Airport Ambassador at the Portland Jetport.
Barnes, 81, is the first to volunteer for the program designed to help arriving and departing passengers navigate the newly expanded airport.
Deputy Airport Director Scott Carr said about 20 people have applied for the volunteer positions since the call went out last month.
Ambassadors are asked to work at least one four-hour shift per week and must be cleared by the Transportation Security Administration in order to work beyond security checkpoints. The process includes getting fingerprinted, which stunned Barnes at first, she said.
“We want to enhance the passenger experience at the Jetport, so someone is always there to any extent possible to assist arriving and departing passengers. It’s the little things we can help with that can make a good experience an excellent one,” Carr said.
Volunteers are trained about airport history, the layout of the facility, customer service techniques to assist travelers and how to be observant for possible security problems.
The information desk also has bus schedules, maps, menus and other tourist information.
Barnes spent her first shifts at the information desk adjacent to the baggage claim area on the first floor, and is eager to get out from behind the desk to help travelers throughout the airport.
A retired psychologist, Barnes also volunteers with hospice patients. She has been challenged by health difficulties of her own and relies on a motorized chair to get around.
“As long as I have my automobile here, I can do anything,” she joked about her chair.
She has also proved an effective program recruiter. As Barnes began her shift last Wednesday, her neighbor, Kristina MacCormick, walked into the administration office to fill out an application.
Perks include free parking (including when traveling), express security lane access when traveling, an ambassador vest or polo shirt and discounts at Jetport shops and restaurants.
Barnes said she gets more than that because she enjoys working with people.
“People come in ask all kinds of questions,” she said. “I’m retired, I don’t like sitting home and doing nothing.”
The Jetport information desk is open from 9 a.m. to midnight from Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to midnight on weekends. Barnes said she would consider volunteering for later shifts as she understands the Jetport gets busy late at night.
MacCormick, a former librarian at the University of New England, gave the same reasons for her desire to volunteer.
“I had been thinking about doing this kind of volunteering,” she said. “I enjoy meeting people.”
Within an hour last Wednesday morning, visitors to the information desk sought pages for arriving passengers and directions to rental car desks now located outside the terminal. One woman sought a cardboard box to cover the Styrofoam container she was using to ship lobsters.
Airport Assistant Security Coordinator Linda Nieves said she expects to play a lead role in training ambassadors, and knows their work will benefit her as well.
“When somebody is confused in the middle of the terminal, we can point them in the right direction,” Nieves said.
Planes have been landing at the Jetport site since the 1920s, and it has been Portland property since 1936, Carr said.
A $75 million expansion completed about 10 months ago has rearranged TSA security entrances, added departure gates, created more direct access to parking, and altered lane configurations for dropoff and parking areas.
Terminal space was doubled to more than 292,000 square feet, Carr said.
When Paula Perry, a former Cumberland resident now living in Boise, Idaho stopped to get directions, she noted the changes.
“It looks pretty amazing, I have no idea when it happened,” she said.
Carr said the response from volunteers has been encouraging, and added at least one passenger has already emailed thanks for help from Jetport staff, including Barnes.
Carr shared an email from visitor Malcolm Sands, who said staff arranged for his father to get a new flight after one was cancelled while making him feel comfortable.
Being sociable is an asset, but Barnes said the ambassador role is easy to learn.
“You don’t have to be a psychologist to do this,” she said.
To learn more about the ambassador program, call 874-8877 or visit www.portlandjetport.org/ambassadors.
Portland neighbors Helen Barnes, left, and Kristina MacCormick, are volunteering to help travelers at the Portland International Jetport as a part of a new ambassador program. About 20 people have signed up for the fledgling program.
Boise, Idaho resident Paula Perry gets directions from Portland International Jetport Airport Security Coordinator Linda Nieves last Wednesday. Nieves will train airport ambassadors to help visitors locate depature areas, baggage claim, rental car desks and directions to Portland and Maine locations. “When somebody is lost in the middle of the airport, we can point them in the right direction,” Nieves said.