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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Bias and equity at the airport

The airport is a great place to observe human behavior…especially bad behavior.


Last month, as I was waiting to board a plane, the dreaded words came over the speaker: “This is a full flight.”


Everybody knows what that means—they won’t have room for everyone’s carry-on bags. Ever since the airlines started charging extra for checked luggage, more travelers have been packing carry-on and there is a race to get on board early. There’s no prize for winning—but if you lose, you have to wait at your destination for your bag. So we passengers were on alert for our group number to be announced, so we could claim the scarce spots.


This cutthroat contest at the airport gate got me thinking about the hustle of the workplace. In a diverse organization, employees all bring their well-packed skills like carry-on bags, hoping to apply them where they can be seen and make a difference. In both situations, inequities will naturally form.


Airlines ensure that people’s varying needs don’t prevent them from smoothly accessing boarding with an equity-based system: calling passengers with disabilities on to the plane early on. The same should be true at work. A learning style that makes it take longer to read a document; a back injury that keeps you from sitting for long periods of time; or a mobility issue that prevents you from using stairs—these challenges don’t need to be penalizing if leaders build equitable systems, policies, and habits.


I applaud the airlines and their regulators for this policy. But systems are made up of people. It’s still up to the passengers to check our own biases about who is in line and when it’s our turn.


For instance, last month when there was one remaining passenger in a wheelchair waiting for the staff escorts to come back—a Black man—I watched with amazement as the people behind him walked in front of him to board! Fortunately, an escort came and got him before they announced the next group. An unconscious bias around ability may have been compounded by unconscious bias about race, allowing some people to completely see through another human being.


An airport experience a few weeks later reminded me that not all disabilities are visible. A woman near me in the waiting area asked me which groups had been called. When I told her they had only called for people with disabilities, she zipped forward with her sister. A couple of passengers behind me commented about them not looking as if they had a disability. I had been talking with the woman earlier and she had told me that her sister had anxiety so I knew why they boarded with that group. But, absent information, our brains tend to make judgments quickly, especially in stressful situations or when we think that someone else is getting a privilege that we aren’t receiving.


Overcoming bias is about pausing and considering a wider range of possibilities. That’s our responsibility as individuals to promote equity. Workplaces, in turn, need to create accessibility through policy and ensure that it is applied in practice.


And it’s up to the airlines to build planes with bigger overhead bins - or stop charging us to check our bags!

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