Technology may promise every convenience in the palm of our hands, but Ella Ghica says that nothing can replace face-to-face customer service.
Ghica, who has worked at Bush Intercontinental Airport for 23 years, manages a team of 108 volunteers who offer personal attention to 50 million customers who visit IAH each year.
“You see stressed travelers fumbling with their phones, searching the monitors for flights, or looking lost, and then you see their smile of relief when they find a friendly face to answer a question quickly,” Ghica said.
“There’s no such thing as a typical day at the airport, and the volunteers are well trained and prepared,” she said. “I call them my angels in the terminals. I cannot tell you how many airport customers who cannot thank us enough for their service.”
On a recent October morning, Ghica traversed the IAH terminals, her arms laden with papers, planners and a volunteer envelope that reads, “Ask me. I can help.” Rushing between meetings, she stopped at the information booths to check in with volunteers on duty, to whom she delivers a few treats.
“I can’t remember the lyrics to my favorite songs, but I can tell you all about Susan, I know Frank’s favorite snacks, I know whose back is hurting, and who is traveling,” Ghica said.
Volunteers staff four information booths in terminals A and C, international arrivals and between terminals D and E.
Airport volunteers can’t just be well intentioned; they have to be well informed. Volunteers field questions ranging about flight arrivals and departures, baggage claim, rental cars, security, facilities, restaurants, attractions around Houston and more.
“You need to know your stuff and know it well. Customers are usually in a rush, and they are not always in the best mood,” Ghica said.
Bud Henderson said volunteering breaks the routine of retirement.
“This is my escape from reality. You just never know what’s going to happen,” Henderson said. “Meeting and helping new people every day — it’s the only place you can practice psychology without a license.”
Volunteers occasionally receive odd requests that require creative solutions or quick action. One customer was worried about getting her brother’s cremated remains through security. Another man needed advice on how to pick up a shipment of deer antlers from the airport agriculture office. One international visitor was trapped in the airport for several days because his host family never showed up, and he had no money for accommodations or a return flight. Ghica said many travelers need an emergency change of clothes, so she brings extra clothes from her own closet to give away.
“The customers certainly keep you on your toes and keep your mind sharp,” Henderson said. “About 80 percent of the people we help are grateful and pleasant. Another 10 percent are so happy, they gush so much that you almost can’t stand it. And the last 10 percent haven’t had a good day since 1981, so don’t bother trying to convince them otherwise. Nothing you can do or say will make them happy.”
Ghica said she relates to many of the international travelers who cross her path. She is originally from the Transylvania region of Romania, and then lived in Vienna, Austria, before arriving in the United States in 1990. She speaks fluent Romanian, German, Hungarian and Yugoslavian, a valuable skill in airport customer service, she said.
“My office is in the same terminal where I arrived in the U.S.,” Ghica said. “It was literally the first place I saw when I landed on American soil. I never dreamed I would spend my days working here.”
That was before her evolution from reluctant transplant to deep-rooted Texan.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t like Houston at first,” Ghica said. “It was so hot, and I was afraid of the big flying cockroaches. I cried almost every day and told my husband I wanted to go back to Austria or Romania. Then I got a job at the airport, and this is my home now. These volunteers have the opportunity to make the first impression on first-time Houston visitors, and I’m proud to train them to be Houston ambassadors.”
Susan Barrow, who has volunteered at IAH for six years, credits Ghica with the growth and strength of the program.
“Working with Ella is such a privilege,” Barrow said. “She is organized, patient, high energy, positive and Houston friendly. She strives to do the best and inspires the volunteers to do the same. The interaction with Ella, the other volunteers and the customers makes this meaningful and worth your time. I’m genuinely excited to come here in the morning, and happily exhausted when I go home.”
Ghica continually looks for new ways to improve customer service. She said she finds inspiration and best practices by volunteering for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and events at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands. Ghica also encourages airport volunteers to broaden the ways they can help by attending informational events on topics ranging from Super Bowl volunteer training to human trafficking.
“Whenever there is a new training for employees, I always ask if my volunteers can participate,” Ghica said. “The volunteers can add 108 more sets of eyes and ears around the airport. They need to know what to look for and how to report suspicious activity.”
In addition to overseeing the volunteers, Ghica helps organize Houston Airport System’s fundraising efforts for the city’s Combined Municipal Campaign. She supports the Harmony in the Air program, where local musicians perform live in the airports. She's also involved in the Aviation Club for high school students interested in aviation careers, and Wings for All events that prepare children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families for air travel.
“The more I do, the more I learn, the better asset I can be to the airport and the more job satisfaction I have,” Ghica said. “This job has made me more appreciative of life at all stages. Most of the volunteers are retired, and I admire them so much. I see that life doesn’t have to slow down after retirement. It’s so humbling and inspirational. They push me to be better.”