We've all had those cold-sweat airport moments: Running late, you can't find the departure gate. You've missed your flight, and don't know where to turn.
To the newcomer, Los Angeles International Airport can be daunting — so sprawling, so crowded, everyone zigging and zagging. Last year, nearly 75 million visitors moved through its nine terminals, contending with endless traffic, jammed parking lots, constant construction and snaking lines. Not just for security, but also for burgers, bathrooms and caffeine.
Friendly help can be found at the nation's second-busiest airport, even though many may be too stressed to notice it: Volunteers sporting red blazers and vests staff information booths on the arrival level at each terminal. They are trained to know their surroundings, inside and out.
FOR THE RECORD
Feb. 6, 10:17 a.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that LAX is the nation's fifth busiest airport. It is the second busiest in the nation and the fifth busiest in the world.
They've memorized the location of the gates. They know how to use the city's complex public transit system.
They can field questions: Where's the bathroom? How do you get to Disneyland?
They know where to send you when you're panicked about lost luggage or a missed connection or tracking down a relative whose flight has landed but who is nowhere to be seen.
The 300 or so volunteers work three-hour shifts, serving a weary traveling public from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.
An additional 200 volunteers would come in handy, said Heidi Huebner, who runs VIP — which stands for Volunteer Information Professionals.
To woo recruits one recent night, VIP advertised a meet-and-greet. Anyone interested in finding out more was advised to come wearing comfortable shoes.
Sixteen people showed up at an office on the ground floor of the airport's spider-legged Theme Building, where they were offered cookies and muffins before embarking on a brief tour.
Most were retirees. Some were lifelong airplane junkies. One said he'd traveled nearly every week for years and so was well-versed in the traveler's experience.
Harmony Harper, 26, recently came out west from Conneautville, Pa., and stumbled upon a mention of the program when applying for an LAX public relations internship. She's not working right now and has some free time — although she hopes to get a job at the airport or perhaps with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The VIP social was in part an informal screening, because this volunteer job isn't suited for everyone. You have to have a thick skin and not take it personally when harried travelers are brusque.
"You can't be shy. You can't not like people," Huebner said.
She and veteran volunteers shared some little-known but key facts with the potential recruits:
Airport people don't say "LAX," they say "LAWA" — for Los Angeles World Airports. If you hear someone say "tibbet," what they mean is Tom Bradley Terminal. You can check in 10 hours before a domestic flight and four hours early if you're flying overseas.
Robin Cunningham of Westchester smiled brightly and nodded as she listened in the front row. Retired from a tech job in client support, she said she'd heard about VIP from her hairdresser.
"I love people and I love to solve problems," she said. The 59-year-old is also a crossword and Sudoku buff.
If doing such puzzles is supposed to be good for the brain, the LAX volunteer job no doubt is too. It requires mastery of a complex ecosystem — and the volunteers never stop learning because the place is constantly evolving.
Longtime flight routes are altered. New ones appear, along with expanded ground-transportation options such as Uber and Lyft. VIP sends its volunteers a weekly newsletter so they can keep up.
Carl Blenkin, a volunteer for nine years now, can identify flights by their numbers and knows many schedules by heart. He can decipher any boarding pass or upside-down luggage tag at a glance.
But it's traveling the globe without leaving home that is the biggest draw for him, he said. "When you work in the booth, you meet the world."
The other day, he talked about the Middle East with a young Egyptian who spoke forcefully against the radicalization of religion. A stressed-out couple from Paris were rude to him at first, but "they warmed up and we had a wonderful conversation about their city and what it was like living there."
Blenkin, 64, whose career was in social services, said he's had many a man and woman arrive at the information booth, crying. First, he tells them that any problem is "resolvable." Then he does whatever he can.
He's helped people who've landed in Los Angeles with no money in their pockets, people who have lived in the terminals for days. He's soothed a woman with last-minute jitters about seeing a man she'd met online, and stood by as chaperone when they came face-to-face to make sure everything was OK.
He's befriended many other people who work in his terminals, so he knows how to find someone in a flash who speaks Vietnamese or Korean or Farsi — although volunteers do have access to a telephone translation service.
He said he enjoys the challenges, and not knowing what will come next. And yes, he said, call him crazy, he loves being at the airport.
"It's all the energy, the movement, the excitement of going somewhere."