'Welcome to the airport!' Ambassadors give lift to customers

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ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - Melissa Myers had a bit of a wait before her friend Kim Bravo arrived at Alexandria International Airport from Jacksonville, Florida.

That was OK. She had the time to make a new friend - Michael, a resident at the Louisiana Special Education Center and a participant in the airport's new ambassadors program.

"He kept me company," said Myers, from Ferriday. "We're going to New Orleans, and he told me the places we need to go, like Café Du Monde and Red Fish Grill. Also, the places we don't need to go."

"Basically, what we do is greet people, make them feel welcome and comfortable, try to make the airport feel more homey," Michael said. "I'm a people person, so I like to meet new people from different parts of the country and hear their stories."

The ambassadors program was conceived by Scott Gammel, airport manager and interim executive director of the England Authority, and Richard Bushnell, who recently retired as director of the Special Education Center and serves on the England Authority Board of Commissioners.

Its purpose is twofold - to make the airport more customer friendly and give students at the Special Education Center an opportunity to acquire and enhance real-world skills.

The Special Education Center works with students ages 3 to 37, with a wide range of physical and cognitive challenges. Whatever a student's particular challenges, the goal is to "help them live as independently as possible," said Kristy Flynn, the school's director.

"We're trying to make it as work-related as possible," Flynn said. "They have to wear a uniform; they have to present themselves professionally, just like they would in a real job. It also gives them a chance to work on social skills. They can take what we practice at school out in the community."

"We're always trying to market our airport," Gammel said. "There are seven commercial airports in Louisiana, and everybody is vying for that passenger. How can we better do that? Through a great customer experience. I can't think of anyone better than the incredible men and women at the Louisiana Special Education Center to do this."

Nov. 8 was the official launch of the program, which also includes members of the Retired Chief's Group.

Ambassadors like Michael - identifiable by their red vests - were greeting people as they entered the airport or stepped off a plane with welcoming words and a smile, or chatting with people in the terminal waiting on arrivals.

The goal is to train ambassadors to also provide information about the airport and direct customers to amenities they need.

Ambassadors will be at the airport on Mondays and Thursdays from 9-11 a.m. initially, and "we'll try to get it to grow from there," Gammel said.

"Everybody is doing great," said Kasey Carter, assistant terminal superintendent and ambassadors program coordinator. "Everybody has really warmed up to this idea when they get to see it in action."

"If I was in a strange airport, I would love to see young people greeting me like this," Bushnell said. "People really respond to (the Special Education Center students). Even though some of them can't talk, their faces are so expressive."

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