Volunteer Airport Ambassadors

By Leigh Robinson

The major airports in Australia and some overseas countries, such as New Zealand and the USA, are assisted in their passenger mobilities by dedicated teams of volunteers who are generally referred to as airport ambassadors. These volunteer ambassadors play an important role in the daily functioning of major airport terminals by providing assistance and information to the mobile public as they transit through the sophisticated socio-technical systems that comprise the airport terminal.

Volunteer ambassadors at Sydney Airport

Volunteer ambassadors at Sydney Airport

Non-commercial interfacing with the travellers and visitors in the public spaces and some secure areas of the airport terminals is conducted by the volunteers under the supervision of each airport’s management. My study is investigating the psychological effects of the airport terminal (treated as a geographical place) on the ability of the volunteers to carry out their roles and upon their daily lives. The incidence of the effect of ‘place’ on the volunteers is being investigated as is the impact of it on the operation of a major airport terminal. In doing so, in my thesis I will also debate the perception of airports being placeless entities in the light of the involvement or otherwise of those working within the terminal space of the airports.

During April last year I spent 10 days immersed with the volunteers of Adelaide Airport and closely observed the volunteer ambassadors as I accompanied them during their sometimes-exciting shifts. I watched assistance being given to unfamiliar travellers who sometimes had little or no English and witnessed the machinations by the volunteers to establish the cause of stress in the intended or just arrived traveller which were at times quite enlightening. One of the simplest questions “do you have your travel documents with you?” sometimes became a complexity of hand signals and miming to get the message across. On occasions it was possible to secure the services of a translator from airport or airline staff, in one instance a passing traveller took notice of the situation and recognised the language of the distressed traveller and came to their aid.

During my series of interviews there was an interesting comment from a Mandarin speaking volunteer when I raised the spectre of a possible terrorist event in the terminal, the response was

“I feel comfortable in my role, but I can’t say it’s secure because you know there is the terrorism. The terrorist always happen in the airport. Sometimes you have to be suspicious about people who leave luggages or like who phone call in the place not allowed, electronic device to be suspicious about those things”

and further

“Yes, because a lot of terrorism things is happening in the airport and like, for me, I feel like, I from China where we have more strict security check in country’s airports …. Well, the army will involve the airport. Yes, but here we have just the security people, just policeman. For me I need to be suspicious because the culture of the environment is different. I feel secure, I just feel like you need to be aware.”

These comments from a single volunteer made me more aware of some of the stresses that the volunteers are subjected to and gave me an insight into an international comparison between Australian security standards and those in place in some overseas airports. I also became conscious that the airport volunteer ambassadors cannot be the solvers of all problems but in the long run they are able to fix most situations with and sometimes without, third party assistance.

Self Check-in Kiosks at Sydney Airport

Self Check-in Kiosks at Sydney Airport

The operation of the airport terminal is becoming increasingly electronically sophisticated. The constant technological advancements appear to impact upon irregular travellers who have not previously experienced these new technologies. The frustration of the travellers with the equipment transfers onto the volunteers even though it is not their role to assist at equipment such as self check-in kiosks. This transfer of frustration is yet another aspect of the terminal environment that I will be investigating with two on-line surveys.

My research is being assisted by the ‘inside knowledge’ that I have gained during the 30 odd years that I have been working in and around airports as a supplier of a broad range of sophisticated technical equipment. During those years I have been involved in the airfield (where aircraft land), on the apron (where the aircraft park to load and unload passengers) and within the airport terminal. Although I was not aware while it was happening, I now know that I was gaining a unique insight into the management and operation of airports. This insight, when combined with my experiences as a volunteer and as a manager of volunteers enables me to have in some ways, a uniquely learned approach to my research.

Leigh Robinson is a PhD Candidate with AUSCCER and the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities.

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