Marilyn Fox eyed the casually dressed young man as he attempted to walk down the up escalator in the Santa Barbara Airport’s new terminal building. She has often witnessed this behavior from arriving (and some departing) passengers moving to and coming from the upper level, and she still is baffled why some people take such perverse pleasure in going against the escalators.

“Some of them just love to do it, and they’re very determined,” the Goleta grandmother commented. “It’s hilarious to watch, but I do worry that someone might fall and hurt themselves.” To her knowledge, no one has fallen yet.

Marilyn Fox is among the 15 ambassadors trained to assist travelers at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.

I asked how often she sees people challenging the escalators. “Oh, probably 10 times a shift,” she replied. This is a partial estimate since Fox patrols the terminal looking for visitors who need information or assistance only once a week for three hours.

She is a certified ambassador for the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, one of a cadre of about 15 volunteers trained to greet and direct visitors in and around the airport’s terminals, answering questions and collecting feedback for airport administration. This is something the retired travel agent relishes doing, is good at, and has done since the first group of Airport Ambassadors donned their navy blazers in 2010.

Another veteran ambassador is Sally Coye, who has lived in the Santa Barbara area for less than four years but took to the program like the former flight attendant she is. Coye’s introduction to the airport was a tour hosted by the Newcomers Club, which led to her recruitment by Hazel Johns, assistant airport director.

“She told me I’d be ‘a natural’ for the position,” said Coye, who wanted to help her new community in some meaningful way. She knows now she found her niche, and she told me about assisting an elderly gentlemen who was having trouble using the pay phones to call a friend waiting for him in short-term parking.

When the octogenarian’s ride pulled up at the curb, he turned to Coye and asked, “Will you be here when I catch my return flight home?”

Those are the moments the volunteers treasure far beyond the blazers, badges, and free parking provided them by the airport. “Many of the visitors make you smile, they’re so sweet,” said Coye.

Because they see how visitors use the terminal, the ambassadors also provide practical suggestions about what could be improved. The airlines’ ticketing and baggage check-in counters in the new, $72 million complex, for example, have name signs readable only from the front. Some volunteers have suggested that horizontal name signs above the counter spaces would help direct passengers approaching the terminal’s counter from the sides.

The ambassadors know and share with visitors the airport’s local history and some of the stories behind the art inside. Fox especially likes to direct people with time on their hands to a circular mosaic in a side entrance to the main lobby. She finds intriguing the 20-foot-diameter work by artist Lori Ann David, which is titled “Santa Barbara 360°.”

Santa Barbara airport is one of the few United States airports to have the services of a volunteer corps of guides-cum-greeters, according to former travel agent Fox. “I’ve traveled widely,” she said, “and only Phoenix airport has anything similar (to the ambassadors). They call them ‘helpers.’”

She, too, enjoys helping travelers navigate through the terminal complex. “Most passengers are pleasant most of the time,” said Fox. She recalled grateful parents for whom she had retrieved toys their children had forgotten in the upstairs secure area. Under present airport security, only with difficulty can passengers return to retrieve toys in these situations, but ambassadors prescreened by the federal TSA (Transportation Security Administration) are able to access the area quickly.

Their work beyond being a friendly face to the dazed and disoriented traveler in a strange airport is what endears ambassadors to the airport administration. “Marilyn is very observant and a great people-watcher,” said administrator Johns. “If someone hesitates, she notices and intervenes.” Founded and shaped by Rebecca Fribley, the ambassadors’ new coordinator is Lynn Huston. She and Johns are on the lookout for more ambassador candidates. If you are interested, let either of them know by calling (805) 967-7111.


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