After an absence of one year, two months and five days, the Ambassadors are back.
The airport volunteers were on the job Monday, welcoming and assisting passengers and visitors at Pittsburgh International Airport for the first time since the program was suspended on March 13, 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s like being home again,” said PIT PAWS Volunteer Ambassador Lisa Lemmex as she walked her therapy dog, Zeus, through the airport. PAWS (Pups Alleviating Worries and Stress) is a group of therapy dogs who walk the airport with their volunteer owners and are available for petting.
Just as it seems with so many pandemic-related issues, there were many hurdles to overcome.
“We basically restarted the entire program,” said Elise Gomez, PIT’s Manager of Customer Experience. “There have been so many changes throughout the airport that we not only needed to get the Ambassadors up to speed, but also to remind them that in this new era we must do so many things, sometimes even the smallest tasks, differently.”
The first to return, in addition to the therapy dogs, are the volunteers who serve at the Ambassador desk in the center of baggage claim. The airport installed plexiglass around the U-shaped desk as well as social distancing markings and decals—and new pandemic-era operating protocols.
Ambassadors attended online and in-person training programs which included the review of a 16-page “Pandemic Playbook” that detailed steps and changes the Airport Authority has taken to ensure the safety of all during the pandemic.
“As always, the safety and health of our customers, volunteers and employees are our top priority,” said Samantha Stedford, Director of Customer Experience. “We were very cautious in returning to normal volunteer levels, which we’ll do in phases.”
Lemmex said she understood the need for the training, but said Zeus, a Bernese mountain dog, is ready to go and that she does not expect any of the dogs to have issues with masked people petting them.
“Every time we go out and see people, he’s begging to be petted and scratched,” she said. “He doesn’t really see the mask, but sees the person behind the mask.”
The Ambassador program is a way for members of the community to volunteer and help people unfamiliar with the airport have a more positive experience.
When the program began in 2001, 54 Ambassadors were on hand to welcome international travelers to Pittsburgh. Over the years, their duties have expanded, including absorbing the former Traveler’s Aid desk in baggage claim. In that time, the number of volunteers has nearly doubled.
Ambassadors have also operated the airport’s Military Lounge, which has been in the airport since 2008, and moved to its current location in Concourse C in 2018. The Lounge will remain closed until all the Ambassadors return to the airport.
“It’s just nice to be back again,” Lemmex said. “There have been lots of changes, but I think it’s what everyone expected.”