A bleary-eyed woman had just arrived at O’Hare International Airport after a 15-hour overnight flight from India. She stopped at my Terminal 5 information desk to see if she needed to fulfill any immigration requirements. As we talked, she put her passport into her purse — and then she couldn’t find it.
“You stole my passport! You stole my passport!” she screamed.
“No, I saw you put it in your purse,” I told her. “Keep looking.” I could see she was exhausted, so I didn’t take it personally. Fortunately, amid the general din of this busy terminal, the fuss was barely noticeable. She frantically searched for another few moments, found the passport, and then immediately walked away, muttering half apologetically, “It was a long flight.”
I’ve met plenty of stressed travelers at O’Hare, where I’m one of the information desk volunteers for Travelers Aid Chicago, a social service program of the nonprofit Heartland Alliance. In addition to providing escorts for travelers in need of assistance, Travelers Aid maintains nine information desks at the airport, and over my seven years of volunteering, I’ve been behind all of them.
Most people probably don’t notice us, but during each of my shifts, I speak with several hundred travelers who need help. The questions range from the simple (“Where’s the nearest bathroom?”) to the complex (“I missed my flight, and the airline ticket counter is closed. What should I do?”). Add the airline industry’s post-COVID scheduling and staffing problems, and we volunteers are busier than ever.
We assist travelers who don’t know where to check in for their flight, what airline they’re booked on, what terminal they’re in, what gate their flight departs from, how to locate that gate, how to get a wheelchair, where they can pray or meditate, where the pet relief areas are, where the nearest table-service restaurant is, where the car rental companies are, where the ride-share cars pick up, and where their airline’s baggage claim is. We help them find regional buses, hotel shuttles, and the airport’s Blue Line train stop. We can also answer questions about the airport’s namesake (Butch O’Hare was an ace World War II navy fighter pilot), explain why there’s no Terminal 4 (it was converted to the Bus/Shuttle Center), and direct you to the closest Garrett Popcorn stand (O’Hare has four of them).
We have large binders packed with airport information to help us. “You’re our eyes and ears in the terminals,” a Chicago Department of Aviation staffer told us in a recent meeting.
Sometimes travel stress leads to short tempers. Once, after I gave a man directions to some parking lot elevators, he thanked me by loudly snapping, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” (Actually, I do.)
“Can’t you work any faster?” a woman snarled at me when I was looking up a phone number for her. (No, probably not.)
Children are one of the more pleasant diversions in the airport’s constant carnival of people-watching. Sometimes when I tell parents about the family area in Terminal 2, I spell out p-l-a-y-g-r-o-u-n-d, in case they don’t have the time or inclination to go. Once, after I did this, a little girl of about 5 said, “Oh, I know what you said! Play dough!” She was very pleased with herself.
Some of my fellow volunteers are former airline and airport employees who have O’Hare’s hurly-burly in their blood. Others are like me: seasoned travelers interested in aviation who find the excitement of working at a bustling airport something of an addiction. I’ve volunteered elsewhere during and after retiring from my teaching career, but nowhere quite like this. I’m an easy traveler, but I know many people are not. So, despite the occasional screaming and tears — yes, we have facial tissues at our desks — I enjoy helping stressed travelers become, well, less stressed.
That isn’t always an easy task. There was the traveler who was indignant after my volunteer colleague Doug told him that O’Hare has no Concourse A. The man whipped out his travel documents and smugly held up his itinerary. His flight was indeed leaving from a gate on the A concourse. Unfortunately, as Doug gently pointed out, the concourse he was looking for was at Midway Airport.
Roger, another volunteer, was temporarily stumped when a non-English-speaking woman came to his information desk and silently handed him a piece of paper with a string of single-digit numbers on it. No words, no explanation; the woman simply stood and waited. This could be a telephone number, Roger realized. He tried the number, explained who he was, where he was, and why he was calling. “That’s Grandma!” shouted a voice on the other end. Success.
But I could do little for a young woman who stood in front of me, weeping, because she was one minute late arriving at the check-in desk for her flight to Ireland. The employees were already locking up and refused to process her check-in, resulting in a missed flight. This happens often in Terminal 5, used by many international carriers for their once- or twice-daily departures, and it rarely has a happy ending. Most of these airlines close their check-in counter an hour before the flight’s scheduled departure, some even earlier than that. We can provide phone numbers and try to improvise a way to contact the ticket agents, but these usually don’t work. When ticket agents leave, they’re gone, gone, gone — so please don’t be late for your international departure check-in.
The most dramatic assistance I’ve given was after a man missed his Etihad Airways flight in Terminal 5. I had him use the desk phone to call relatives, and then I sent him to Terminal 3 to talk to representatives of Etihad’s partner, American Airlines. After he walked away, I noticed he’d forgotten a portfolio containing all his travel documents — itinerary, passport, personal papers — and $2,000 in cash. I decided to try to find him in Terminal 3, which I knew wouldn’t be easy. I locked up the desk, hopped on the tram that connects the terminals, and called the Chicago Police Department’s O’Hare dispatcher. It took the help of that dispatcher, three patrol officers, and an American Airlines supervisor, but we got everything back to the grateful man.
Occasionally traveler queries are downright outrageous. A young couple once asked my colleague Marcel, “Where can we go to have sex?” Despite the throngs of passengers traveling through O’Hare every day — more than 150,000 of them packed on over 1,500 flights — the airport does have a few quiet corners. (There’s also a hotel directly across from Terminal 2.) But don’t get any ideas.
One little-known peaceful haven inside O’Hare: the yoga room inside security on the second floor of the rotunda at the edge of Terminal 3. I send people there who want a place to pray or meditate. An open area nearby offers tables and chairs, plus some quiet amid the airport’s chaos. I once fell asleep there during a meal break.
I often find myself curious about the backstories of passersby. Like the woman screaming on her cellphone as she walked through a hall connecting Terminal 2 to Terminal 3: “I’ll remind you that if anything happens to me, I’m the mother of your children! … Oh, you don’t care? I’m the mother of your children!” Or the man laughing hysterically to himself as he walked by my desk — and no, he wasn’t on his cellphone. Or the young woman crying loudly as she passed, staring at a message on her phone.
Then there’s this one: A woman asked if she could have one of the Chicago tourism publications stacked on my desk. “Certainly,” I said. She took it, walked a few steps, rolled it up, then whacked her husband on his arm. I guess it’s good that we don’t distribute complimentary baseball bats.
Although we see plenty of stress, we also hear much gratitude. Most travelers are thankful for our help — and sometimes startlingly appreciative. I’ve been told that I’m a wonderful person, that I’m an angel, that God blesses me, that I’m a lifesaver, that I’m the smartest man at O’Hare.
It’s easy to work with that kind of feedback.