Diary of an Airport Customer Service Rep

Fielding questions about COVID-19 and whether the airport is open (it is)

By Kelli Finnerty

Published April 6, 2020

Read Time: 4 mins


Editor’s note: Hundreds of Pittsburgh International Airport staff continue to work in the terminals during the coronavirus crisis, including Customer Service Representatives. The airport has installed stanchions around the Customer Service desk to provide six feet of social distancing between staff and travelers. Blue Sky News asked Customer Service Representative Kelli Finnerty to catalog a recent day on the job. Here’s her log from Sunday, March 22.

It was a regular Sunday afternoon shift for me. As I came into the airport, I noticed only four taxis in the holding lot, waiting for passenger calls. Typically, dozens of cabs cram into that lot. Not one Uber or Lyft vehicle was picking up a passenger at the curb.

On my way up to the Customer Service desk in the Landside Terminal, I counted only 11 people in baggage claim.

Other than the emptiness, the day started fairly normal. At 1:45 p.m., a police officer turned in a paper shopping bag with a mug and keys inside; travelers often forget or lose items. About a half hour later I noticed a mother with two young girls walk by to go through security. There aren’t many passengers.

The topic on everyone’s mind, of course, is coronavirus. At 2:39 p.m., a person who works at the airport stopped by to tell me that drinking warm liquids and putting your clothes in the sun or dryer can help kill the virus. (I don’t know if that’s true, but I listened.) About a half hour later, a woman called to identify a lost jacket and made arrangements to pick it up.

At 3:09, a man from Ohio called. He wanted to know if passengers arriving on a flight at 2 a.m. this morning had been held for health screenings. (I told him no such thing happened.) He said that a young woman had contacted him, saying that she needed $200 to stay in a hotel and be quarantined for the night.

It sounded like a romance scam, which unfortunately is common, spliced with fake coronavirus claims. I was surprised someone had adapted the scam so quickly. I told the man that the woman’s story was not true.

I answered several calls asking the same questions: Is the airport open? Are taxis still operating? How do I get a refund for my flight that I no longer want to take? I heard the airport is closing? Are all flights canceled?

(The airport is indeed open.)

At 4 p.m., I rotate a portion of my shift into the lost and found storage room. We do this to minimize our time in the open and still be able to field calls. Fifteen minutes later, a man called asking if there are restrictions on people flying right now. (There aren’t, at least domestically.) He said he had two 18-year-olds he wants to get back to Arkansas and felt safer with them flying rather than “driving through all of those states.”

At 4:18, someone who sounded drunk called and laughingly asked if the airport was still open. Ten minutes, another call: “Ohio is going on lockdown. Can I still bring my sister to fly out on Spirit tomorrow?” I told him I hadn’t read the government order but I did some quick research and found some information for him. Regardless, the Ohio stay-at-home order wasn’t going into effect for a couple of days.

At 5 p.m., I took my lunch break and walked around the Landside Terminal a little bit. It was very, very quiet. Later I took more calls about the Ohio order. At 6:27 p.m., a woman called asking if she would “for sure” be able to board her United flight the next day. I told her to check with her airline to make sure it was still scheduled.

Two minutes later, a guy asked me to hold his hamburger while he went to the restroom. Um, no. (I declined.)

More calls about whether the airport is closed. At 6:42 p.m., a woman called to say her daughter is a critical care nurse and must fly from Florida to Pittsburgh. Another woman called to see if her flight was still on for the next day.

Finally, at 7:33 p.m., a non-coronavirus call! A woman inquired about flying with her minor grandchild: Does she need identification? (The minor grandchild doesn’t.) And then another normal call: a woman inquiring about purchasing a flight for May.

The streak was short-lived. At 7:55, a young man called to ask if the airport would be open next week so he can take his flight and return. I told him the airport would remain open.

At 8:50 p.m., I walked to the Airside information desk, which is closed for now, to see if anyone dropped off any lost items. There were none but it was eerily quiet—even McDonald’s and Strip Market were closed and they’re always open at that time. It’s a strange feeling.

My last call at 9:18 p.m. was more of the same. A man wanted to know if his girlfriend could still fly in from Austin, Texas, on Friday.

I finished the shift after fielding about 20 calls and multiple questions from passersby. Nearly all conversations had to do with the pandemic.

I’m looking forward to getting back to normal questions about the lost and found and flights. Minus the burger holding, of course.

Executive Editor Bob Kerlik contributed to this report.

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