Please look after this traveller

Some have been abandoned, some mugged, some have lost all their money and others are simply lost. Gatwick's Samaritans look after them all.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's a weekday morning at Gatwick Airport. In the offices of Travel- Care, the airport's Samaritan service for travellers, the week's first case is fast asleep. For the past three days, Tommaso, an 18-year-old Italian, has been dodging the Gatwick Airport police, snatching sleep when he can before being moved on.

Ruth Lotinga, a former British Airways stewardess, one of three part- time duty advisers employed by the charity, would like to do more to help, but Tommaso hasn't made it easy for her. "He came over here on a one-way flight, hoping some relatives in Wales would look after him," she explains, "but they don't want him. Since then, I can only suppose he's been sleeping rough." It was Ruth who helped him when he first arrived at Gatwick in May without a penny to his name. "He's in the same clothes he was in then," she says.

When she requests assistance from the Italian embassy, she is informed that they issued Tommaso with a return train ticket some weeks before. Unfortunately, he doesn't speak English, so Travel-Care enlists the services of a young Italian woman who is waitressing at the Gatwick coffee shop. Through her, they discover that he has torn up his train ticket, but she can't find out why. And when, finally, the local Italian police make contact with his mother, the answer comes back that she doesn't want to know him either.

The policeman who has been called to the Travel-Care offices wants to know what Tommaso could have done to alienate so many members of his family. Ruth tells him: "We try not to judge people, we just help them to help themselves to get on their way again."

Nevertheless, she admits that Tommaso's is a particularly difficult case. He will have to be found homeless accommodation in this country if the Italians won't pay for another ticket. As an EU citizen, he is fully entitled to stay here for as long as he wishes. "More often than not, we can find one responsible person somewhere who is willing to lend the money, but not in this instance."

Last year, 23 million people visited Gatwick, and 2,000 of them ended up being helped on their way by Travel-Care. This weekend, the first weekend of the school summer holidays, is recognised as being the busiest period.

Most of the Travel-Care cases will be holidaymakers who arrive at Gatwick broke and can't make the final leg of the homeward journey from the airport. "Usually," says Ruth, "they have been robbed, or have simply run out of money and been sleeping on the beach. If they're claiming income support, we can send them down to Crawley DSS."

It seems that the social services have had a long-standing facility for assisting the unemployed to get back from a holiday. If they have no other way of finding the money, the DSS will make "crisis loans" to buy tickets on the cheapest means of transport, usually a coach. This is then recouped from the income support at source.

Daren Taylor, 23, from Belfast, arrived at Gatwick a fortnight ago on the promise of a job as a hod-carrier in London. When he got there, however, the family friend who had guaranteed him the work had already given the job to his own son.

Although Daren stayed with the family for nearly two weeks, relations soon soured, and last night he turned up at Gatwick after his mother told him she had booked him on to a return flight. "When I got here," says Daren, "I found out that my mum hadn't booked me on the flight after all, so I've been sleeping in the airport." Ruth makes a call to Crawley DSS and Daren is sent on his way there, where he can expect another day-long wait for them to process his application for a crisis loan.

Like most Gatwick passengers, Daren had never heard of Travel-Care. The service does not go out of its way to advertise its presence. The charity has learnt some salutary lessons in the past, and no longer considers itself a "soft touch" for holiday chancers. "People do try it on," says Ruth, "thinking we will give them money on any old excuse. But I never just hand over the cash, I'll escort them to buy a ticket."

And in some cases Ruth has no qualms in advising travellers on the finer points of hitchhiking. "If they're able-bodied and being unhelpful about who we can contact, we show them where the motorway is. We will give them sandwiches and something to drink, so they don't fade away on the journey." But, she says, it is amazing how often irate fathers will fork out for return tickets, once Travel-Care has got them on the phone.

In exceptional circumstances, Travel-Care will hand over cash. For example, victims of muggings, who look as if they've been beaten up while on holiday, can expect the full Travel-Care treatment.

Britain leads the world in charity travel care. Apart from a similar organisation at Heathrow, no other airport in the world offers a Samaritan travel service. Travel-Care is sponsored by Gatwick Airport Ltd, British Airways and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with additional general charitable donations, some from grateful travellers who have benefited from Travel-Care's assistance. This pays for the three employees, who are assisted by 12 volunteers, most of them former airport staff, ranging from BAA directors to duty-free shop staff.

Travel-Care is in constant contact with foreign embassies. Ruth won't name those that take a less-than-charitable view of their stranded nationals, but she says the Italians and the Americans are two of the best at looking after their own. "The Latvian and Ukrainian embassies are also very helpful. We had a lot of students from these countries last year who weren't being met by the British families at the airport."

As the numbers of people taking advantage of international air travel continue to increase, the range of distresses from which passengers can suffer becomes wider. Last year, Travel-Care was asked to assist an 89- year-old woman who had flown in from Melbourne via Manila to meet family who had failed to turn up at Gatwick. She appeared very disorientated and Travel-Care managed to book her into a hotel while they traced her British family.

That night, the woman left the hotel and was found walking down a main road in the belief that she was still in Melbourne. She was sent to a local hospital for medical tests, where she was diagnosed by doctors as having suffered a mild heart attack on the plane.

Leaving the country can also be distressing. The second-greatest number of cases seen by Travel-Care are British holidaymakers who have missed flights. Many forget that charter flights are not always rebookable. Travel- Care often mediates between angry passenger and uncompromising airline. Ruth says passengers under stress sometimes come across as aggressive and rude. "They blame everyone but themselves. When the airline says to be here two hours before departure, they mean it."

There is no doubt that airports and holidays put relationships under strain. Even if you've turned up on time, remembered your passport, ticket and money, a few too many drinks in one of the Gatwick bars can turn your best-laid plans upside-down.

"I'm not an ambassador for Relate, but we have had couples conducting slanging matches in here, and I have had to calm the situation down," says Ruth. Even if couples leave the country hand-in-hand, there is no guarantee they will still be on speaking terms, or even on the same flight, when they come home. "I've had people come back early, literally in what they were standing up in, because they've been thrown out of the hotel room by their husband or wife."

Travel-Care is proud of its record in patching up relationships. Last year they managed to get a gay couple back together after they had returned separately from one of the Greek islands. "They had a major row and one of them came back early. When the other one arrived a few days later, he was very upset and we managed to persuade him to ring his partner. They made up on the phone in our office".

There are a few travellers who are simply beyond human help. "You do get people who are zealously religious, usually from sects in America, who turn up at the airport believing God will provide."

One woman told Travel-Care that she didn't need any help because God would find a way for her to fly to America for her son's graduation. She waited in vain at Gatwick for two days. "I'm afraid God does not provide airline tickets," says Ruth.

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