White Hatters set to return to Calgary airport after 2-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year pause because of COVID-19, White Hat volunteers are dusting off their uniforms and getting ready to say “howdy” to air travellers — they’re returning to the Calgary International Airport in April.

The Calgary Airport Authority’s volunteer program began in 1991. The job of a White Hatter includes welcoming passengers, wayfinding and offering assistance, according to its website.

The pandemic temporarily suspended the service, but the White Hatters are finally set to gradually return to the airport in the coming months.

“White Hat volunteers are public ambassadors for YYC,” said the airport authority’s Chris Miles in a Monday news release. “We are excited to welcome them back.”

Matthew Koristka, who has been volunteering as a White Hatter since 2018, is excited to return.

“It’s been a long two years, and we do get quite close with the other volunteers that we work with. So it’ll be nice to see each other in person,” Koristka told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

“It’ll be nice to be able to provide that warm, friendly, welcoming face back at the airport, and make sure that travellers feel welcomed when they’re coming through Calgary.”

White Hat ceremonies and uniform changes

The program started with just 45 volunteers, but in more recent years, its numbers have surpassed 400.

Their ages range from younger people to some in their 90s, says Koristka, who started when he was 18 — the youngest volunteer at the time.

His family has a history in aviation, which initially drew him to the role that he says is intended to provide some “legendary western hospitality” to travellers.

And that includes, of course, crowning some as honorary Calgarians for the duration of their trip with a white hat.

“It’s something that anyone can request for a member of their traveller party coming into Calgary,” Koristka said.

“Everyone from the Royal Family to the Dalai Lama and U.S. presidents have been white hatted, but your family can also be white hatted as well.”

And while the uniform of a White Hatter — red vests, white shirts, black pants and a namesake cowboy hat — became a familiar sight to Calgarians returning home, it has undergone a change.

The white hat is now optional, so that the program is more inclusive.

“That was a change … we made just to kind of better reflect the diversity of the region,” Koristka said.

“And give everybody the opportunity, no matter what you wear on your head, to become a White Hat volunteer.”


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

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