Airports of All Sizes Are Championing Diversity

Airports of All Sizes Are Championing Diversity
Nicole Nelson
Published in: 

Recently honored as the first recipient of the Leon C. Watkins “Guardian Award” for Excellence in Business Diversity, Ricky Smith knows a thing or two about inclusion.

“I am an airport CEO, but my ministry is minority development,” says the executive director at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). “I always look to make sure women and minorities have access to all of the opportunities that come across my desk.”

Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) presented its inaugural Watkins Guardian Award to Smith for promoting the growth and evolution of minority- and women-owned businesses and suppliers, while also fostering advancement of civil rights and equal opportunities for all. The award is named for the late Leon Watkins, a ranking official with the FAA Office of Civil Rights who was instrumental in the inception of the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) and Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE) programs.


Project: Improving Industry Diversity

Program: ACI-NA Inclusion Champion Awards

Strategy: Celebrate proactive, innovative inclusion programs for workforce diversity, business contracting & outreach

2020 Airport Recipients: Baltimore/Washington Int’l Thurgood Marshall; Charleston Int’l; Southwest Florida Int’l

2020 Associate Recipient: HMSHost Corp.

“The number of protégés and mentees Mr. Watkins continues to have in the industry couldn’t be counted on a couple of hands because he was so impactful in so many lives,” Smith says, noting that he feels fortunate to be included in such enlightened company. “The award was already reputable, but to add Mr. Watkins’ name to it added a level of prestige because of what Mr. Watkins stood for.”

While Smith is humbled to have been singled out for the Guardian Award, he is even prouder that BWI received an ACI-NA Inclusion Champion Award. “It really represents the success in our organization and the work our entire team has engaged in,” he says. “It is one thing to have diversity. It is another thing to have diversity and active inclusion in your organization.”

Large Hub Inclusion Champ

As winner of the diversity award’s large hub category, BWI was recognized for removing unnecessary and artificial barriers, particularly in the area of employment.

“I would argue that BWI Marshall has one of the most diverse management teams in the business,” Smith says.

Since 2015, the airport has increased women in executive management 129%; and racial/ethnic diversity has grown in executive and senior management 300% and 64%, respectively.

On a broad level, Smith feels that many businesses overcomplicate the issue of inclusion. “The reality is that when you allow a true, level playing field—when you create an environment where people feel invited and like they belong in your organization, where women and minorities can compete to the same standards that are really important—women and minorities win out. They just do.”

As a result, new hires at BWI tend to hail from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. And many are younger than the industry average. “When I recruit for managers, I am not looking for someone with 30 years of experience,” Smith says. “I am focusing on competency, not just someone that has been in the room for a long time.”

Smith also makes it his mission to help BWI’s leadership team embrace the importance of making sure women and minorities are not subject to unnecessary barriers.

When it comes to selecting business partners, the airport strives to surpass minimum requirements outlined in federal, state and local regulations. For Smith, fostering relationships is the most natural approach to growing minority presence among vendors and suppliers. BWI’s signature outreach event, Synergy, provides a daylong conference for existing and aspiring minority business owners to interact with established airport partners. Providing access to BWI’s general contractors, professional service providers, airlines and tenants is a key.

“Non-governmental entities are in a better position to negotiate opportunities on the spot,” Smith explains. “When we remove that barrier and those restrictions and allow these emerging minority-owned firms to deal directly with the larger prime firms and negotiate opportunities on the spot, we see a better outcome.

“Our experience has been that once minorities get the opportunity to show what they can do, they excel at the same rate that larger firms do. They just need the opportunity.”

To further this cause, BWI partners with Fraport USA on a venture called LaunchPad. Since 2017, the program has helped nine local minority- and women-owned businesses open concessions kiosks at the airport.

BWI also sponsors its annual Summer Youth Initiative to stimulate career interests. Since the program’s inception in 2015, it has introduced more than 250 underrepresented students to the aviation industry.

Small Hub Inclusion Champ

Charleston International Airport (CHS) in South Carolina won top honors in the small hub category of ACI-NA’s diversity awards.

Airport Director and Chief Executive Officer J. Elliott Summey says that CHS nurtures and promotes women- and minority-owned businesses through initiatives such as its kiosk program, which gives small, “uniquely Charleston” businesses the opportunity to operate concessions at CHS. The airport also surpassed its goal of achieving 15% disadvantaged business enterprise participation during a recent parking deck project. Fully 19% were minority- or female-owned businesses. 

“Having a diverse mix of businesses, entrepreneurs and employees leads to success at our airport, and in our community as well,” remarks Summey. “Charleston is a very diverse place, and the airport should be reflective of its community.”

He was especially delighted when the airport’s “wildly successful” kiosk program led to an even bigger opportunity for one participant. Last year, the CHS Board of Directors approved an ACDBE venture between Delaware North and Charleston native Shawnalea Garvin. The resulting Cinnabon location was sweet success for both Garvin and Summey because it is the airport’s first inline concession operated by a minority-owned business.

Summey is also proud that CHS harvests some of the region’s best and brightest young minds through internship programs with historically black colleges and universities. Partnerships with South Carolina State University and other area schools have introduced minority students and recent graduates to CHS and the wider aviation industry.

Medium Hub Inclusion Champ

Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW), the medium hub Inclusion Champion, was lauded for its commitment to promoting full participation and proactive engagement in the community by hosting or co-sponsoring more than 60 events to assist 12,000+ small, women- and minority-owned businesses in the past five years. Moreover, the events yielded results. The Lee County Port Authority, which operates RSW and one other local airport, exceeded its DBE and ACDBE goals by an average of 10% every year during the same timeframe.

The Port Authority designed an Inclusions Program to improve workforce and hiring practices and developed several employee empowerment and educational programs.

For instance, the “Lunch & Learn” outreach and education program focuses on making employees a priority; and the ASPiRE program provides opportunities for personal development and self-fulfillment within the workplace.

An inclusion program to improve workplace practices is also in the works. Key components in development or being considered for implementation include:

• adopting gender-neutral language in performance management programs and job descriptions,

• initiating equal pay across the organization during the hiring process, and

• including cross-departmental employees in the interviewing process.

In addition, the Port Authority implemented an online certification, outreach and contract compliance system that increased the number of certified businesses enrolled.

“I am proud of the efforts our team makes to ensure we reach out to diverse business partners to make workforce inclusion part of our corporate culture and come up with new ways to engage with our local and aviation community to network and recruit employees and interns,” says Ben Siegel, acting executive director of the Lee County Port Authority.

Outstanding Airport Partner

Travel restaurateur HMSHost Corp. was named the 2020 Associate Inclusion Champion.

Ron Gomes, vice president of Strategic Alliances for the company, notes that HSMHost has120 ACDBE joint venture and sublease partners that generated $500 million of revenue in 2019. An informal mentoring program developed the same year helped guide promising suppliers and entrepreneurs in a focused effort to invest in ACDBE business capacity and supplier diversity.

“Our mentoring program helped identify and advance promising suppliers and entrepreneurs in a focused effort in invest in ACDBE business capacity and supplier diversity,” says Gomes.

ACI-NA recognized HMSHost for the instrumental role it plays to include minority- and woman-owned general contractors. For instance, it helped Chicago’s Bowa Construction become one of the first 100% African American-owned general contractors building concessions spaces at O’Hare International Airport.

“HMSHost was honored to receive the ACI-NA Associate Inclusion Champion Award in recognition of our continued efforts to foster diversity and inclusion throughout our business and employment practices,” says Laura FitzRandolph, executive vice president and chief human resource officer. “This comes at an important time when we are planning for future growth around diversity initiatives that will drive success for our organization and the industry. As we continue to navigate through the challenging environment of today, we do so with a focus on tomorrow by building inclusive partnerships and a culture of equal opportunity.”

In Good Company

Debby McElroy, the longtime secretary of ACI-NA’s Business Diversity Committee, says all of the 2020 award recipients deserve accolades for their comprehensive commitments to inclusion.

“We have been doing these awards since 2014 and I am always impressed with the caliber of the many nominations we get in,” McElroy reflects. “We are celebrating organizations that have far exceeded aspirational goals and have made a commitment to expanding opportunities to contract with minority and women enterprises in their community.”

She also stresses the importance of outreach programs that help develop the next generation of businesses and people to work at airports.

But it takes more than a single project or program to become an ACI-NA Inclusion Champion. “You must demonstrate a body of inclusionary work in all areas,” says McElroy. “These awards signify a comprehensive commitment.”


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