Lindbergh Field is a smorgasbord of emotion. Many a traveler has cried, whined, screamed and panicked. And that’s before they’ve even reached security, which in recent years has only added to their anxiety.
Yet Ginna James, 66, has taken all the recent controversy over airport security and the corresponding irritation in stride. Uniformed in a green vest, James and 300 of her fellow Volunteer Airport Ambassadors can be found strolling back and forth between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2, looking to assist unnerved flyers who are lost, late, livid or all of the above.
Her reason for joining the team of unpaid volunteers 11 years ago was simple: to give back to the military and to help people. Lindbergh Field greets and goodbyes an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 military personnel per week. Many of those men and women are fresh out of high school and absolutely clueless as to how to get to Camp Pendleton or 32nd Street. James is notified by the military of their arrival and acts as a liaison for young or injured military who need assistance getting on the plane to Iraq and Afghanistan. And she is sure to meet them when they return home too.
I sat down to ask James some of her favorite and not-so-favorite memories as an airport volunteer, her feelings about the new security regulations and how travelers can avoid those airport-induced mood swings.
What’s the draw of being a volunteer?
For me it’s helping the military because I’m giving back to them what they’ve done for us. But also it’s helping people. And it changes. It’s never the same and that’s what makes it interesting. I’ve been here 11 years and I’ll still get a question asked that I have never heard before. It’s kind of fun.
How do you help the military?
I set up a new system so whoever takes [a military personnel] out has to meet them when they come back, because they recognize you. When they see a big smile, it works. That’s the feel good part of it — that these kids become my friends. I’m like their grandmother.
The guys who are just coming in, they’ve just gone through basic training, sometimes they’re still scared shitless and we try to make it easy. We get them to the USO and take care of the young ones as well as the injured ones. Sometimes they come back and the wife doesn’t show up to pick them up, she’s got a new boyfriend now or something. It can be hard.
What do you think about the new security measures?
A lot of people are worried about the new full-scan machine because they think there’s radiation, but for those of us like me who have a new hip — it’s a godsend. If I go through security it will beep and then I have to have an invasive search. As much as I have to go through to help military, I don’t want to have an invasive search every time.
How are those invasive searches?
I don’t mind it now, because they take us off to the side, but part of the problem of the invasive searches is that everybody stops to watch. Most of the [TSA agents] are prepared to tell you exactly what they are going to do. It’s the back of their hand and it’s always a woman. I understand what they need to do, but I would rather have that machine on so I don’t have to do it.
Do you experience a lot of flyer frustration?
A lot of people come in and are mad at the airlines and mad at security. But when you try to help them they calm down a little bit. Sometimes it’s just because they don’t have the knowledge to do what they need to do. They come unprepared and don’t realize what is going to happen.
I’m surprised that after all this time people still do not get what can and cannot go through security. They come with everything. We try to put out notices to go to the TSA website so you can see exactly what you can bring through security and people don’t do it — especially if they’re in a hurry. So they really don’t like it when something is taken away from them.
Who has been your most frustrated flyer?
We had one woman, she was almost in tears, and I asked her if I could help her. She said she checked in outside, had to pay extra for baggage and there’s also an extra fee for checking in outside. She said, “They had the audacity to ask me for a tip and at that point I figured I was $45-$50 bucks more out than I thought I’d be, so I didn’t tip. Now I’m afraid my luggage isn’t going to get to my destination.” Those are the kind of people we try to help.
How do holiday travelers differ from year-round flyers?
At Christmas time you may have someone who hasn’t traveled in a year or two — and really doesn’t have a clue what to do. Most of them are in pretty good spirits, but a lot of them are stressed out too. They have a new program here where once you get past security, they have people wrapping gifts in the back because you can’t take a wrapped gift through if you carry on. So a lot of people have to tear everything apart. But then they find out there’s somebody on the other side who’s going to wrap it and that helps.
What is your favorite memory?
One time this tall, really good-looking Army guy came in. About an hour later, the door opened and in came this beautiful blonde with two twin boys and a little girl. I was standing there and she came running in and the first thing she said to her husband was, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
And the kids didn’t know who this man was. So he sat down on the floor, down to their level, and brought them in. Everybody just stopped and watched. There wasn’t a dry eye in this terminal. When she came back out, she stood to the side and he just talked to them probably for a half an hour and then they got up and left. And they knew who he was.
But I’ll tell you — you could hear a pin drop in this terminal. As busy as it was nobody said a word, it was just quiet watching these four reconnect.
People don’t realize that when they have military coming in from anywhere, they can get a gate pass and meet them at the gate, so it’s more private when they meet. That’s one thing nice that TSA and the airlines allow.
Interview conducted and edited by Ashlie Rodriguez. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0525.