For volunteer ambassadors at Pittsburgh International Airport, the days are often filled with the unexpected.
Long-time husband-and-wife volunteer duo Gary and Sandy Smith once encountered a traveler who thought New York City was just a short cab ride away from Pittsburgh.
“We were stunned,” explained Gary. “We felt so sorry for her. She didn’t speak any English and thought for sure she could take a taxi to Brooklyn.”
That’s about a 370-mile trip.
The Smiths are among nearly 100 volunteer airport ambassadors who provide important information and daily assistance, including bus options for lost travelers, as well as a friendly welcome to the region.
The program began in August 2001 when airport staff recruited volunteers to welcome passengers arriving on flights from London, Paris, and Frankfurt, Germany. At the time, the initial ambassador class consisted of about 50 participants.
“We wanted to show airlines that we could accommodate flights operating from anywhere in the world,” said Jeff Martinelli, manager of customer programs, who was responsible for developing the airport ambassador program in 2001. “We also wanted to enhance the overall experience for passengers.”
A number of ambassadors have been involved since the program started, including Martha Lanken, who volunteered on the very first day.
“The flights came in pretty much within a half hour of each other,” Lanken said. “They were always very full, with about 200 passengers on each. Most people were just so happy to see someone smiling and asking them how they were and what they were going to do in Pittsburgh.”
Ambassadors assist with events throughout the year, including gate celebrations and 5K races.
Today, airport ambassadors can be found throughout the terminal, greeting passengers in the international arrivals area, staffing the airport Military Lounge, and providing information at the ambassador desk located on the baggage claim level.
Ambassadors also assist with special airport activities throughout the year, including gate events to celebrate the launch of new flights and airlines, the airport Holiday Open House, and 5K races held at Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County Airport.
For Rodney Akers, an ambassador of 17 years, the program has provided many rewarding experiences including assisting travelers with little knowledge of English or others on their first trips to the United States.
“It has been a wonderful opportunity to warmly welcome them and often help them learn a little something about Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania,” said Akers.
In 2018, ambassadors contributed more than 15,000 hours of volunteer service at PIT.
Members of the airport leadership team recognize and thank the group each year at an annual holiday event which was held on Thursday night at the Airport Marriott. Additionally, a luncheon is held during National Volunteer Week in April, along with a summer picnic in September.
“Ambassadors are essential to helping the airport team carry out daily tasks,” said Elise Farris, manager of customer relations. “Our volunteers contribute to all of the airport’s improvements and achievements, and we are so grateful to have them as part of the team.”
To learn more about the ambassador program and how to volunteer at the airport, click here.