Assistance

Tidbits for travelers: new airport, new avatar on duty

Mari, a Stuck at The Airport reader who works in air navigation in Georgia – the country, not the state – wrote to draw our attention to the King David the Builder International Airport being built in Kutaisi, Georgia by the Dutch architectural firm, UNStudio.

The airport is scheduled to be completed by September, 2012. Here’s what the tower is going to look like:

(Photo courtesy UNStudio)

Very futuristic-looking, right?

At Washington Dulles International Airport, the future is already here.

A 3D-looking Tensator Virtual Assistant – Dulles has named her “Paige” – is on duty welcoming passengers, offering Customs and Border Protection information and sharing connecting flight information in the International Arrivals Building.

Here’s a video (taken by an airport representative) of Paige in action:

Infographic Friday: what do travelers do?

Travelers are a studied bunch. No doubt that’s why all these infographics are popping up. Or maybe it’s just fun to rustle these up. Here are two that showed up in my inbox this week:

The first one is from Rasmussen College and highlights how travelers use social media when on vacation.

The other was put together by Travelex and, way down at the bottom, shows that only 5% of traverers get their travel cash at the airport before they leave on a trip, 26% get cash at the airport in their destination city (-presumably at a money exchange booth?) and 24% seek out an ATM in town.

How the world travels
Travelex Currency Exchange

At Singapore Airport, iPad-toting team helps flustered fliers

One more story about Singapore’s Changi Airport…

For my ‘At the Airport’ column on USATODAY.com this month, I reported on an afternoon spent observing the crack team of Experience Agents at Changi Airport.

Apropos of an airport with a butterfly garden, a rooftop pool, a three-story indoor slide and 500 complimentary Internet kiosks among its award-winning amenities, Singapore’s Changi Airport is determined to best other airports in the customer-service department. Last March, the airport introduced a 90-member team of salaried, iPad-toting Changi Experience Agents (CEAs) tasked with roaming the four terminals assisting travelers with way-finding, check-in, transfers, lost luggage and other travel-related issues. In some cases the CEAs seem to all but read travelers’ minds in anticipating their needs.

The program is part of an ongoing effort the airport descibes as providing a “positively surprising experience for all visitors and passengers.”

For example, a CEA found Kenneth Ocastro staring in bewilderment at the digital flight directory in the departure hall of the Changi’s busiest terminal.

The young man had purchased a non-refundable ticket to Manila on a budget carrier, but arrived at Changi too late to make his flight. “It was raining very hard and I had to wait a long time for the taxi to come,” said Ocastro, “And when I got here the gate was closed.”

Ocastro was beginning to panic when Changi Experience Agent Johnwin Custodio stepped in. “The passenger was looking around and seemed very nervous,” said Custodio, “So I approached him and offered my help.”

Rather than simply pointing Ocastro to the long line at his airline’s counter – an exercise apt to be futile – Custodio used his iPad to check rates and schedules for alternate Manila-bound flights. It took about 20 minutes, but he found a good option, walked Ocastro over to that carrier’s ticket counter and hovered nearby, solving other travelers’ problems, while Ocastro waited his turn.

“At most airports, you need to go find a customer-service agent at a booth, but here we are creating an impact the moment you step into the airport,” said CEA Maxime d’Alexandry. The 22-year-old was hired for this, his first job, after serving a mandatory stint in Singapore’s army and received Changi’s 2011 “Personality of the Year” award for helping a stranded wheelchair user who’d soiled himself wash up and then shop, buy and change into a new set of clothes.

“It’s just an example of the things we do on our job is to reduce passenger stress,” said d’Alexandry.

To that end, the 90 CEAs together speak a total of more than 20 languages and dialects, including Hindi, Japanese, French, Tagalog and Thai; a reflection of the wide range of cultures represented among the airport’s more than 45 million annual passengers. And when confronted with a passenger whose language they do not understand, CEAs use the Google translation app on their iPads. “That helps us cut down on the number of passengers who miss their flights because they can’t find the right check-in counter or gate,” said Ira Fanador, a CEA supervisor,

The iPads also allow the CEAs to help passengers buy last-minute tickets or apply for visas; tasks which are often cheaper when completed online even if a traveler is already at the airport.

Fanador says since the Changi Experience Agents were introduced, they’ve been able to resolve most, but not all, problems they’ve encountered. She’s still sad that they couldn’t help a frightened and wounded woman trying to return to China without the passport her employer had taken from her, but is proud her team was able to assist the three African men found crying on the sidewalk outside the airport.

“They’d come in from the Philippines and discovered that tickets on to their home in Senegal turned out to be bogus,” explained Fanador. “They had no money and didn’t know what to do.” A team of CEAs helped provide meals for the men, tried to work something out with the airlines, and contacted a local charity, which took the men in and eventually sponsored their tickets home. “By the end of the ordeal we were all friends,” said d’Alexandry.

Changi’s experience agents don’t just deal with the sticky problems. During an afternoon following d’Alexandry and several other CEAs around the airport, I saw them give directions to transfer gates and to the various airport gardens, help search for a lost passport and tell a tired-looking traveler that he needn’t stand waiting for an open slot at the cellphone charging kiosk because there was another free one just down the hall.

“Flying is just so stressful,” said d’Alexandry. “It’s just a good idea for an airport to do what it can to reach out.”

Zombies happen. Pack a travel emergency ‘go kit.’

Tsunami Museum

From the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawaii

If you happened to be on the road – in a hotel, a convention center or, of course, in an airport – when some sort of disaster strikes, would you know what to do? And would you have the right tools and supplies with you so that you could do what you needed to do?

I wasn’t confident I would.

But after talking with experts and savvy travelers about the ideal contents of an emergency ‘go kit’ for this story on msnbc.com – Disasters prompt world travelers to be prepared – I’m feeling more confident about dealing with everything from tsunamis to zombies when I’m on the road.

Here’s the story:

When an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile at around 3:30 a.m. in February 2010, Seattle-based wine importer Ryan Sytsma was asleep in a Sheraton hotel somewhere between the airport and downtown Santiago.

Once he realized it wasn’t a train shaking the room, Sytsma jumped out of bed and stood in the bathroom doorway.

“It kept getting worse,” he said. “Soon the electrical outlets started throwing sparks, anything unsecured was falling over and smoke filled the room. I could only see flashes of light, hear explosions like bombs and smell smoke that was a mix of drywall dust, burning plastic and melting rubber.”

Sytsma survived the three-minute temblor unscathed and raced out of his hotel room with his passport, cash, shoes and his small suitcase, which was already packed and near the door.

Those items, and the extra shirts and dozen Power Bars packed in the suitcase, helped ease the post-earthquake experience a bit for Sytsma and the people he ended up with. And now Sytsma makes sure to pack for every trip with disaster preparedness in mind.

Good idea, say the experts. A well-stocked emergency “go kit” can arm a traveler with tools that may help keep a bad travel situation from turning into a full-blown disaster.

“Given the recent events in Japan, Egypt and other places that appeared as low to insignificant on the risk map last year, a lot of people are rethinking their preparedness,” said Alex Puig, regional security director for International SOS, a global medical and security assistance company. “We’re not asking people to go above and beyond what common sense dictates. But anything can happen, and preparation is the most important thing you can do.”

Be prepared
Snow, rain or even a computer glitch, as Alaska/Horizon passengers learned this past weekend, may delay your plane for hours or days. You may get stung by a jellyfish, mugged by thug or knocked unconscious by a falling coconut. Then there are earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, pandemics or political upheaval to deal with.

Of course, many travelers will never experience an emergency while on the road. And danger can also find you close to home.

But for those who want to be prepared, what should go in an emergency kit?

“A good police whistle, two glow sticks, a small roll of wide adhesive tape to prevent hotel doors from closing, and $100 in local currency in small denominations,” said Noel Koch, senior director of travel intelligence for the travel risk management company NC4.

Koch considers a smartphone, with a reliable service provider, essential as well. “In the case of Japan, a smartphone would have given the traveler the ability to get information on how to book a flight out of Tokyo,” he said. “In the case of Egypt, travelers could have gotten information via Twitter to find out what was happening with the protests.”

Medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter, belong in your kit as well. “Take enough for your trip and an extra supply in case you get delayed or stuck someplace for a certain length of time,” said Myles Druckman, vice-president of medical services for International SOS. “You can’t assume you’ll be able to find the same medications you have at home. And some over-the-counter medicines may be prepared or branded differently than you’re used to at home.”

Puig adds that you go should always have items that allow you to travel and communicate. That includes a copy of your passport (with another copy saved in e-mail or another electronically accessible way), a cell phone you know will work in any country you’re visiting and a calling card to use if your cell phone dies or is stolen. “None of that really requires a lot of extra effort,” he said.

Make room for these items
Beyond the basics, you may want to add some of these items to your “go kit.”

Beth Whitman, founder of Wanderlust and Lipstick, used to carry a water purifier only on her international trips. “Now I won’t leave home without it even to a destination with drinkable tap water because I realize it would be perfect if water supplies were compromised,” said Whitman.

When she travels to West Africa, nature writer Susan McGrath takes a folding mosquito tent and beeswax earplugs in case she finds herself in a village with a community loudspeaker that plays bad pop music 24/7. She also always takes along a headlamp. “I did get stranded in Nigeria during a countrywide shut down and lived briefly in the Lagos Hilton on my emergency kit,” said McGrath. “And when the power went off in the very crowded airport at 11 p.m., I was pretty well equipped not to panic.”

When WanderingEducators.com publisher Jessica Voights travels with her wheelchair, her “go kit” includes the phone number and address of a mobility organization or store that can help in case of an emergency and/or equipment failure, extra batteries, adapters and converters for medical devices, extra copies of prescriptions “and letters from doctors explaining my medical conditions and equipment needs.”

And Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor of WeJustGotBack.com, keeps a few quart- and gallon-size Ziploc bags in her “go kit” as well as “phone numbers and policy numbers for my car and health insurance, customer service numbers for credit cards and contact numbers for my family’s doctors and pediatrician.”

Pre-packed kits and emergency quarters
At minimus.biz, which sells a wide variety of travel and trial-size items, miniature rolls of duct tape, individual packets of water purifier and glow sticks are listed under the “Survival” tab. Pre-packaged “personal care” kits filled with three days’ worth of water, food and other basics supplies are there, too. Company co-founder Paul Shrater said that since the Japanese disaster, he’s gotten a lot of inquiries from companies and agencies seeking to stock up on those emergency kits but few calls from vacationers seeking to create their own travel-versions of the kits.

“If you really stock it correctly and think of all the things you really need, you start getting up there in terms of weight and size,” said Shrater.

That’s why Puig of International SOS urges worried travelers to sit down and make a plan. “Do an analysis of who you are, how you travel and what the risks are in the country you’ll be traveling to,” Puig said. “Ask yourself how well prepared you’d be if you were in Cairo when the demonstrations broke out or in Japan after the earthquake. What are the things you’d need to have to be prepared?”

Mitch Ahern of technology consulting firm Cantina is prepared. He carries a roll of quarters in his travel emergency kit for late nights at airports or trade show set-ups when dinner may come from a vending machine. Ahern said the quarters have a dual purpose. “I have it on excellent authority that a roll of quarters in a sock makes an excellent zombie-stopper when applied with force to the head!”

Souvenir Sunday: Japanese earthquake relief

Despite the incredible story about an 80-year old woman and her grandson found alive nine days (!) after the earthquake, the news out of Japan just seems to get worse. Relief efforts are extensive – and expensive – so donate some money if you can.

You can donate directly to the American Red Cross through its website or make a $10 donation by texting REDCROSS to 90999 on a cell phone.

Many airlines are encouraging travelers to donate to the Red Cross by offering a mileage bonus as a reward.

Through April 15, 2011 American Airlines AAdvantage members can earn a one-time reward of 250 AAdvantage bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more.

Through April 30th, 2011, United Airlines Mileage Plus members can earn a one-time award of 250 Mileage Plus bonus award miles for donations between $50 and $99, and 500 Mileage Plus bonus award miles for a donation of $100 or more.

Through April 30th, 2011, Continental Airlines OnePass members can earn a one-time award of 250 OnePass bonus miles for donations between $50 and $99, or 500 OnePass bonus miles for a donation of $100.

Alaska Airlines, and several other airlines are also encouraging cash donations to the American Red Cross and other relief agencies through through their websites. Delta Air Lines has pledged $1 million in cash and in-kind support to relief efforts and set up a special website for Red Cross donations.

Many airlines also allow you to to donate air miles you’ve already banked to the Red Cross for use by relief workers and volunteers.

Hotels and other travel-related businesses are also encouraging their loyalty plan members to contribute to relief efforts. 

Hilton Hotels is matching donations of HHonors points with a cash donation of up to $250,000. Contributions will go to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Best Western, Starwood, and Marriott are among the hotel groups encouraging the donation of points and cash as well.

Do what you can.