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CSE On the Fly: Featuring Eric Smith, BWI Pathfinder

Airport volunteerism has increased dramatically over the last ten years, and airports are relying more and more on friendly-faced volunteers to help improve their overall guest experiences. But how and why do people become an airport volunteer?  We took a few moments with long-time Annapolis, Maryland resident, Eric Smith, and got down to the roots of how and why Eric became a Pathfinder volunteer at the Baltimore Washington International Airport. 

We quickly found out that not just anybody can apply to be an airport ambassador - the application process and vetting of volunteers is a serious business.  Security is paramount, therefore extensive background checks and lengthy screening processes are necessary to even be considered as a volunteer in an airport. Eric, a nine-year veteran of the Pathfinder volunteer program at BWI and longtime political cartoonist and columnist, almost got fired on his first day as a volunteer.  “It was my first day and the security desk wanted my passport.  I had already given them copies of my passport and other ID’s during the long application process.”  When they demanded to see Eric’s original passport on his first day of work, being a longtime sailor, he reverted to the language of the sea, and stormed into the offices of the Pathfinders, frustrated by the long and arduous application processes. Pathfinders decided to give Eric another chance and two years later, he went on to win “Pathfinder of the Year Award.”

Why does one become a Pathfinder, ambassador, aide or airport volunteer?  We asked Eric what motivated him to volunteer at BWI nine years ago.  “I used to have a flying phobia.’  He told us.  “I tried all sorts of therapies and started taking Zantac to be able to travel again.  Once I overcame my fear of flying, I wanted to help others.  You can tell when someone walks up to you and they are anxious about getting on a plane.  I just wanted to help other nervous fliers.”  But that’s the emotional reason behind Eric’s volunteerism.  The decision also had an intellectual motivator. ”I’ve always had an interest in the airline industry,” he reflects. “I like reading books and researching flying as well as  talking to pilots.” Thus the retired Annapolitian joined 170 other Pathfinders at BWI in 2007.  “People stay forever,” he says of the mostly retired team of volunteers he works with every other week.

Airports are becoming more and more dependent on the valuable assistance volunteers provide passengers coming and going through their gates. The stress of racing to another gate can be virtually eliminated, as well as an international incident, by volunteers like Eric Smith.  “One day I saw this really old guy dragging a suitcase behind him and carrying a heavy looking backpack.  He spoke very little English but I figured out he had only 40 minutes to catch another plane. I got him to his gate on time and he wanted to tip me.  We don’t accept tips and I tried to tell him that.  But he got really animated and said, ‘I am retired director of finance from South Korea! You will take my money!’  I didn’t want to cause an International incident, so I accepted the $5.”    

Stress can come in many forms for traveling passengers.  Eric shares another favorite story, “I worked with this incredible guy, Dick Coyne, who had won Pathfinder of the Year in 2008. He was trying to calm down this very attractive Pilates instructor who had lost her car. Dick said to me, ‘Eric, take her to the hourly lot and help her find her car.’  After a few minutes of searching a few floors, we found her car.  She was so thankful she asked if she could give me a kiss. I could hardly say no, so she wrapped her arms around my neck and planted a big one right on my lips. She made an old coot smile that day.”

But everyday isn’t sunshine and roses for airport volunteers.  They get the tired, the cranky, and the persnickety.  After a particularly stressful day, Eric was so grumpy, he chuckles, “Even I wouldn’t want me to help myself!”   I asked him what gets him through challenging days like those. “A little wrinkled piece of paper I keep in with my ID, “ he replies.  “It has one word written on it:  SMILE.”  Although his good buddy and mentor, Dick Coyne has moved from the area, that one word of invaluable training sticks with Eric to this day.  “All you have to do is smile,” he says with a smile.