Am I a racist or neurotic or was I just being a good American? I've been pondering this question in the wake of a recent unsettling experience. Since then, I've found a number of people have encountered similar situations or know someone who has. Many said they were unsure how they would have reacted in my place. I was returning to New York City from an appearance as the keynote speaker for a Student Day conducted at the Michigan Design Center in Troy, a tiny Detroit, MI, suburb. I often participate in these wonderful events, which are held at all the NeoCon shows and intermittently at design centers around the country. This trip had been great—the students were enthusiastic and I finally could offer them a more optimistic employment forecast than in a long while. As a journalist and radio-show host, travel is a significant part of my job—as it is for millions of other Americans. To tell you the truth, though, I have always hated flying. This feeling has only intensified since 9-11, especially as there's an edgier feeling all around. The plane I was on was already packed. At the last moment, just as the door was about to close, two more people came on board. They were young men, clearly of Arab descent—dressed in traditional garb—and carrying a lot of bags. There were only two empty seats left, one next to me and one a couple of rows up. The latecomers asked the person in the forward occupied seat if he would trade so they could sit together. So the other passenger moved to the seat next to me. As soon as they were settled, one of the men got up to go to washroom. Meanwhile, we were told that our flight was to be held on the runway. Nearly a half hour later, the guy was still in the bathroom and I had started to think, "Something here doesn't seem, well, kosher." But I also thought, "Maybe I'm just being paranoid." After all, if these were "terrorists," it would seem odd to make themselves so conspicuous. I had noticed that my neighbor was also observing these two guys closely. Although we hadn't spoken since he sat down, he suddenly said, "I don't want to sound racist or anything . . . but do you think that guy has been in the washroom a long time . . . or is just me? Did you notice him?" Well, I certainly had. "If I tell the stewardess, will you back me up?" my new friend asked. At that moment, the first guy emerged from the bathroom—and the second one dashed in. Too strange. OK—now I was ready. It was an MD80, a fairly small plane. So everyone had to have heard us when my seatmate and I went to the front of the cabin and asked to get off the plane, which was now taxiing down the runway. The steward called the pilot, the plane came to an abrupt halt, and the pilot announced that two passengers wanted to get off and that he was obligated to return to the gate. It was an embarrassing situation, to say the least, but when we had taxied back to the gate and were let off, we found that two other passengers had decided to join us. Even at that moment, I was concerned that I was guilty of "racial profiling." Was I being too quick to condemn these two because they looked and dressed differently? On one hand, I pride myself on being "open-minded." On the other hand, as a head-hunter, I have always steered my clients to select employees based on qualifications, not appearances. And that flight apparently went without a hitch, so does that mean my reaction was, in fact, paranoid? What would you have done? Feel free to write, or call, to let me know.For at least half the people my company places, traveling (flying) is a big part of their jobs, and thus a "workplace issue." (And if you happen to be reading this on the plane to or from NeoCon in Chicago, I hope it is not making you feel ill at ease.) By the way, if you attend NeoCon 2003 this year, please come by and say hello at the Viscusi Career Center located in the Merchandise Mart. I will also be broadcasting my radio show live from there, so stop by and join the show. I will be happy to review a copy of your resume; you can e-mail me a copy at [email protected]. P.S.: Just be sure you are not sitting next to me on the flight home from NeoCon—your flight may be delayed!The Viscusi Group, Inc. (www.viscusi group.com) is an executive search firm for the interior furnishings industry. Stephen Viscusi is the author of On the Job: How to Make It in the Real World of Work (Crown: Three Rivers Press). Send questions for future installments of this column to: [email protected].