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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/18/2010 9:53:49 AM ET 2010-02-18T14:53:49

At Virginia’s Richmond International Airport, a baggage system technician found loose padding from a baby seat and hustled out to the parking deck to reunite the part with the pleasantly surprised owners of the seat.

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At Pittsburgh International, an electrician on his way to lunch stopped to use tape from his tool belt to fix a frazzled traveler’s broken suitcase handle.

In Los Angeles, airport ambassador Max Hofileña still gets a bit teary when sharing the story of how he helped a stranded passenger by buying the distraught young mother and her child a few sandwiches. “She cried. I cried. It made me feel good to help.”

Are these just nice people doing what nice people normally do?  Sure. But at airports around the country, going out of your way to try to solve a travel problem is becoming part of the basic job description.

It’s not just because a little extra attention can smooth out a travel experience, but because in these belt-tightening times, better customer service can help shore up an airport’s bottom line. That’s why some airports are now arming their employees with a brand-new, old-fashioned tool: courtesy.

Raising PDXpectations
With tax-free shopping, complimentary Wi-Fi and plenty of public art and live entertainment, Oregon’s Portland International, or PDX, has always felt very customer friendly. In fact, the airport regularly wins awards for its services and maneuverability.

But that’s just not enough anymore, said customer relations manager Donna Prigmore. “The economy being what it is, we can’t afford to lose passengers and cannot afford to let passengers have a bad experience.”

So after months of planning, the airport this month rolled out a “roadway to runway” initiative that challenges all 10,000 airport workers, including taxi drivers, rental car agents, TSA staff, shop employees and airline personnel, to ramp up the quality of customer service passengers experience at the airport.

Airport employees “caught” exceeding at what the airport calls PDXpectations, as well as workers who receive favorable feedback from travelers, will be eligible for special recognition and prizes.

“We started thinking about the initiative back before the economy went down the tubes,” Prigmore said, “and we almost didn’t do it. Then we realized we couldn’t afford not to do it because the experience someone has at an airport determines whether or not they love the airport or if they never want to come back.”

Proactive in the Twin Cities
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport also regularly wins award for its services and amenities. The facility has an enclosed observation deck, a wide array of shops and restaurants, and eight information booths that draw staff from a team of more than 300 dedicated volunteers.

But partly because there’s no room to set up more booths and in part because there are so many people who will not ask for directions, the airport is currently training a team of roving ambassadors who will approach passengers who seem like they could use a bit of assistance.

Diane Dombrock, the director of the foundation that funds the airport’s customer assistance (and many other) programs, said being proactive with travelers makes a lot of sense. “We know people can choose to connect through another airport. But if they find that our airport is more convenient, better designed and generally more helpful, that helps draw more people here.”

Top-notch customer service not only helps the airport, Dombrock said, “it represents how helpful people can be throughout the Twin Cities. And that’s good for the whole area.”

No relaxation at LAX
While Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other airports are creating their own customer service initiatives, many others have signed up for the Tom Murphy’s Resiliency Edge program, which is based at New York’s Fordham University.

Scores of workers at the New York City-area airports (Newark, JFK and LaGuardia) have already taken the course that teaches strategies that can help workers calmly and effectively deal with passengers who are apt to be stressed out, clueless, irate, confused or, often, all of the above.

“It’s not an easy job,” Murphy told a room filled with airport guides and their supervisors during a recent training class at Los Angeles International. “And you can’t expect to solve every problem.”

But after a role-playing exercise in which a gaggle of needy and insistent passengers seek immediate answers from an overwhelmed customer service employee, Murphy explained that each worker should at least strive to be empathetic, a good listener, adaptable and a creative problem solver.  “If you can do that well,” Murphy said, “you’ll be more resilient, less stressed yourself and better able to neutralize the irritations in a customer’s experience. We call that N.I.C.E.”

Training airport employees how to empathize with harried travelers and then lend a helping hand isn’t just a nice thing to do; in the modern world of air travel, it’s essential, said Sean Broderick, spokesperson for the American Association of Airport Executives. “It’s no secret that airlines are cutting back,” Broderick said, “whether it’s fewer ticket agents or skycaps, airline cuts are leaving fewer employees in the airport. And that means fewer employees serving travelers. So now more than ever, airports must be prepared to fill in the customer-service gap.”

Going the extra mile
That’s what happening at Pittsburgh International, where executive director Brad Penrod says both the airport and passengers have already reaped plenty of rewards from having 175 employees go through Resiliency Edge training.

There is of course that sweet story about the lucky traveler who got her suitcase fixed by a sharp-eyed electrician willing to take a detour on his way to lunch.  But a better story comes from a Friday night during one of the recent winter storms.

A group of Resiliency Edge-trained workers realized that while planes were still landing and passengers were still arriving, taxis and hotel shuttle buses had stopped running. Instead of allowing about 125 people to spend the night stuck at the terminal, the workers arranged for one of the airport’s employee buses to drive those travelers to area hotels.

“It will cost the airport a couple of hundred bucks to cover that,” Penrod said, “but they saw a problem, solved it, provided a needed customer service and created a great deal of good will.”

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com.You can follow her on Twitter.

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