The safety net at LAX became significantly smaller last week when the city of Los Angeles, which operates the airport, ended a $400,000-a-year relationship with the Travelers Aid Society and absorbed the management of the volunteers who run and staff the information booths.
The change, which went into effect Friday, does not substantially alter how the information program works: Red-jacketed volunteers will still assist travelers in navigating one of the nation's most daunting airports. But, in reaction to the changeover, the airport's volunteer corps has decreased from 260 members to about 100, and some estimates have that figure as low as 60.
The city is on a recruitment drive to replace the good Samaritans, who handle up to 400 inquiries a shift in the busiest terminals, helping with directions, medical emergencies and even such things as runaways and domestic abuse cases.
Those duties are changing a bit as well. Travelers Aid had provided social workers to help with serious travel emergencies.
"Travelers who get lost and fall through the cracks won't have that safety net," says Christine Okinaga, the Travelers Aid Society's highly regarded director of volunteers, whose last day was Thursday.
Barbara Landon, a volunteer for three years, says, "Now, we'll just turn them over to the police."
And, Okinaga notes, "They won't be a social services agency the way we were."
The change was announced a year ago when the Board of Airport Commissioners, in response to cost-cutting pleas from City Hall, decided to end the $400,000-per-year stipend the airport paid to Travelers Aid, which had been a presence at LAX for 61 years. The city cited cost savings as the primary reason; the only expense it will now pick up, officials say, is $80,000 for training, uniforms and supplies. Laptops are being added to assist with inquiries.
As a result of the shift, the vast majority of volunteers, many of them retirees with management experience in the travel industry, decided to opt out. Forced to reapply for their positions, some volunteers felt insulted. Others didn't want to go through a new round of training and reduced duties.
Barbara Yamamoto, the customer service director who now oversees the volunteers, to be called Volunteer Information Professionals, or VIPs, thinks the changeover will be seamless.
"To the traveling public, they shouldn't see much of a transition," she says. "They're still at the booths in the arrival areas."
Since 2002, the airport's information duties have been split between the volunteers and a group of paid "ambassadors," who work 20 to 22 hours a week. The ambassadors were added after 9/11 to help travelers deal with the challenges brought on by additional security and changing traffic flows. The ambassadors and volunteers, both in signature red blazers, perform similar duties, but the ambassadors move throughout the airport and the volunteers, who average four hours a week, staff the booths.
That won't change. The number of ambassadors remains the same as Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs LAX, begins a recruitment drive for unpaid guides.
"We're looking for volunteers," says Barbara Yamamoto, the customer service director who oversees the volunteers, to be called Volunteer Information Professionals, or VIPs. "If people like helping people, and they like travel, we think it's a great job." (For info, go to http://www.lawa.org/VIP.)
Meanwhile, some volunteers, such as Landon, are going to try to stick it out.
"I'm going to give it six months," she says. "If I find that I can't give the kind of service I used to, I'm out of here."