Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Empathy at the Airport

The other day, I read a few stories about empathy at the airport (links below) and it got me thinking; isn't the airport a great place to grow our empathy, because it's full of people? It's a big concrete box bursting with human beings stuck together in one place for a limited time.

I'm amazed when I consider how many of us could be in the terminal simultaneously. If you are like me, then maybe you only go to the airport to get from point A to point B. We are the travelers; we are the families going to visit other families or if we are lucky, taking a vacation. We are the employees carrying laptops and going to business meetings.

I know that there are other people who love to fly. I see them posting online about their adventures. For these travel experts, I hear that it's simply a joy for them to move so fast and so far and to put their eyeballs and bodies out there in the cosmos.

I can imagine that there are other kinds of travelers that are going on a one-way trip. The guys who are using boarding passes and suitcases to say good-bye for the last time to their home and everything they've ever known, or the gals who are running to a new future in a new town, without looking back.

Rounding out this mass of humanity are the daily airport workers; our brothers and sisters whose alarm clocks and morning coffees are getting them to the big box every day. They are keeping the place moving and shaking by feeding us, cleaning up after us and speeding us on our way. Souls with hearts and minds and fingers and toes are working at the kiosks and cooking in the restaurants and cleaning the bathrooms. People are shunting us like cattle through the security machines or doing a pat-down, and maybe they love their jobs or maybe they don't. I can't leave out the pilots and co-pilots, the flight attendants and all of the other people for whom the airport is their daily commute. There must also be many people I never see or talk to; employees of the airlines and other businesses, the airport administrators, baggage handlers and air traffic controllers.

It's inspiring to have so many people all together in one building at one time. I see this structured system of commercial travel as an opportunity for us empathy builders, because more people means we've all got a higher probability to meet someone new and learn about an entirely different life. Are you going to the airport soon? Perhaps this is your chance to stretch your empathy muscles.

Here are some great airport stories for you to check out:

Here's my latest flying story. Please let me know your flying stories in the comments below, I'd love to hear them.


On a recent business trip, I was flying next to a man who had never been on an airplane in his life. He was older than me, at least in his fifties. I was busy and so we didn't talk until the plane was landing. He was in the middle leg of a three-flight trip, on his way to South Carolina. He wasn't flying direct, he said, because it was cheaper and he had the time to spare.

He told me he was happy, because he was on his way to see his son and 8 week-old grandson. He explained that the flight was a return trip - he had just finished moving everything he and his wife owned to Chicago. It was a long quiet drive on back roads with a big truck, and there were no good radio stations, but it was beautiful. I was confused, and said, "If your family is in Kentucky, why did you move to Chicago?" He told me that he can't stay in Kentucky anymore. He looked a little sad when he said it, like it was a very hard decision for him.

A few years ago, he said he had retired to take care of his wife. Now they were moving to a new town to support his daughter, who was in school in Chicago. He said, "She's in it for the long haul. She'll be spending the next five years studying and doing apprenticeships for her degree, and then once she gets her certification she'll need to look for a job. All of the jobs for her line of work are in Chicago. My son, though, has a career in South Carolina with his wife and family, and they just bought a new house. So I think I'll be flying back and forth for the next ten years, at least."

I looked in his eyes, which held both joy and fear. I said, "It sounds like you are the end of one journey, and the start of another."

He agreed. We were quiet until we disembarked.


Please tell us your stories!