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How to actually work on a plane – tips for increased productivity while flying

by Jeremy B

Working on a plane can be a real challenge for the frequent business traveler. As road warriors we spend a great deal of time in an airplane but how much of it is productive? Given the frenetic life of the business traveler how do we keep on top of things while in transit? Never mind the practical implications of actually trying to work on a plane (cramped economy seating anyone!?).

When the business traveler is up in the air, the world doesn’t stop. Customers, employees, bosses, they all want a piece of us. And if you’ve spent more than 10 minutes in a job you know that email is a never ending saga. It just piles up!

And it doesn’t stop there.

And then the presentation for the next day’s sales meeting, or the report your boss needs done. That expense report you’ve been putting off and more. The business world keeps moving regardless of the fact your 28,000 feet above Salina, KS.

This means we’ve got to figure out a way to stay productive in the air. We’ve got to figure out how to actually work on a plane!

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Working on a Plane – Tips for Increased Productivity

Working on  Plane – Tips for Increased Productivity

In this article we examine the notion of staying productive while you travel. Specifically, readers will learn the following tips for working on a plane:

  • Planning for work travel (pre-flight mindset for productivity)
  • How airline status helps you work better on the plane
  • Don’t forget the wi-fi
  • Keeping up with email
  • Working on presentations / reports
  • Dealing w/ employee stuff (expense reports, etc)
  • Fighting boredom on the plane

Planning for Work Travel – your pre-flight mindset for productivity

Let’s start first with the underlying philosophy of working on a plane. There are different mindsets when it comes to attempting to work on a plane.

Some business travelers believe that the actual act of being on the plane (for a work related trip) is work in and of itself and that no subsequent work is actually needed. This is not necessarily a flawed point of view.

Do these 8 things to stay productive every day

After all, you are away from home, probably at hours that are outside of ordinary work day hours. This is often the view of travelers who don’t travel that often for work.

Images of people working on a plane and text saying Planning for Work Travel - your pre-flight mindset for productivity before working on a plane

On the other hand, frequent business travelers often have a different point of view. They realize that travel is part of the job and it is work in and of itself, but they also want to stay productive during that time. Or, frankly, they may HAVE to stay productive during that time to have a chance at keeping up with their job.

It’s this second group that face the practical challenge of actually getting meaningful work done on the plane.

So, what does that look like?

What does working on a plane look like?

The kinds of work that can actually (and practically) be done on a plane is a bit limited. For example, you can’t take conference calls on the plane (thank god…). You can, however, still tackle some of the other elements of your “day job.”

  • Email
  • Expense Reports
  • Presentations
  • Research
  • Chat / Instant Messaging
  • Reading
  • Deep thinking about work

Each of the above list of can be accomplished while on a plane – each with varying levels of success. Over the next few sections we will examine these activities and identify some tips on getting them done on the plane.

Bear in mind that working on a plane can be incredibly challenging given the space constraints that modern airlines have these days. In other words, seat sizes seem to be getting smaller. Check out this video for proof:

How status sets you up for success

As you travel with an airline more frequently you build status. This status can help you qualify for upgrades, better seating and at times even land in you first class. The benefit of being in better seating is that you will have more room to actually do your work. More elbow room for you laptop and so on.

With status come upgrades and better seating...and room to actually work on a plane

You may even find that wi-fi is included as part of your status which leads us to our next step towards successfully working on a plane.

You need Wi-Fi help you work on a plane

One important element to successfully working on a plane is Internet access. You’ve got to be able to connect to be productive (unless you are reading something you’ve downloaded, doing some deep thinking or are reviewing presentations that have been downloaded to  your PC).

Most airlines charge for wi-fi and it can range from $8.00 for the day (reasonable) to $15.00 or more. Keep your receipt because your company will likely allow you to expense it. And, if you achieve status with your airline you may get it for free. Sweet!

Here’s a list of popular Airline wi-fi charges and policies:

The right tech gear for successfully working on an airplane is crucial

Unless you get upgraded to a first class seat it’s going to be difficult to get your laptop out and really be productive. This is one of the reasons I’ve switched to an Apple iPad which, when combined with a keyboard and case, help me deal with the smaller spaces I am working in on a plane. I also recently invested in an Apple Pencil which helps me take notes on a plane without having to grab a notepad out of my backpack.

Conversely, you can try to get a smaller laptop (which may or may not be something your company can provide for you).

As a last resort, you might find yourself using your company phone. Obviously this will only be for quick email replies, reading, and instant messaging.

Keeping up with email while you travel for work

oh, email, how i loathe thee tips for working on a plane

When you travel for work you’ve basically got three choices when it comes to keeping up on your email:

  1. Ignore it – if they really need me they will call me (or IM me…)
  2. Do it at night in the hotel
  3. Try to keep up with it on the plane

I’ve employed all three techniques before with varying success, but lately I’ve been deferring to #1. Wi-fi is expensive on the plane and I don’t always have the energy to get it done at night in the hotel. And while I can check it on the phone pretty easily I usually don’t. And getting my laptop out is always a tight squeeze unless you got the upgrade to first class.

Here’s a few exceptions:

  • If I know I have something important to work on (like a presentation) I will fire up the laptop and get it done, but ONLY if I have to. If it can wait, it does.
  • If know that I have important correspondence en route that day (meaning I am expecting something with a short fuse) I will go ahead and connect to the Internet on the plane – but w/ my phone. Anything earth shattering can likely be solved via the small screen of my phone. Keep that laptop in the bag if you can.

Or…do what my old boss did recently. He got a small form factor tablet w/ a keyboard  – something designed for small spaces. Now he can easily watch a movie, or do email w/ a screen that’s bigger than your phone. If he needs to do some word processing it’s no big deal. Working a plane just got a LOT easier for him.

Expense Reports & other employee “stuff”

I’ve got into the habit of starting my expense reports while I travel. We use Concur for our travel system and their app (which is ok…a little crappy at times, but good enough) allows me to snap photos of my receipts and upload them immediately. I can then start my expense report during the trip. This makes it much easier to finalize it and submit in a timely manner when I get back.

You can also use the time on the plane to approve job reqs, approve employee expense reports and other “HR” stuff that can stack up when managing people.

Working on Presentations While you Travel

My least favorite thing to do on a plane is work on a presentation. It usually means that I am running behind on something and scrambling to get it done on the way to the customer site or meeting.

Working on Presentations While you Travel - my least favorite plane work to do

It’s also hard to actually work on a deck while you on the plane. I find that I really need a mouse to get my presos in tip top shape. And even in first class it might be hard to pull it off (not impossible, mind you, but more difficult).

I try to avoid working on presentations on the plane and instead knock that out at my hotel.

Reminder…and this is critical…be careful when working on internal presentations on a plane. Prying eyes are everywhere and you might accidentally share internal details you don’t want out. Read my article “Why Frequent Travelers Should Buy a Screen Protector.”

Deep Thinking, Reading & Research – the perfect solution for working on a plane

My favorite work to do on a plane is thinking, reading and research. It’s a perfect time to catch up on that management book your CEO was going on about. Or review a whitepaper that caught your eye the other day.

Perhaps it’s downloading a podcast related to your field or simply sitting back and contemplating the next strategic move you are going to make in the coming months.

Either way, if you are trying to get actual useful and productive work on a plane done, this is a match made in heaven.

Reminder…if you are reading internal strategic documents or taking notes about business strategy be careful about prying eyes!

Join The Conversation – what’s your experience working on a plane?

What’s your experience working on a plane? What tips and strategies do you employ? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by leaving a comment and don’t forget to follow us on social media including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

By the way, if you are interested in more travel tips and travel advice, you might be like these great articles:

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How to actually work on a plane

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Saurabh T November 6, 2019 - 10:23 pm

Working on presentations / reports is great idea as most of the presentation tools doesn’t need internet connectivity.

The C Boarding Group November 7, 2019 - 5:26 am

Awesome, thanks for stopping in

Melissa November 13, 2019 - 7:59 pm

My #1 tip is to bring an external battery pack! I use flights for drafting articles, which I can thankfully do in my Google Docs app offline. But my phone is *forever* running out of juice and I don’t want to depend on having a power outlet at my seat.

Simon November 14, 2019 - 5:15 am

I’ve got a little iPad Mini 4 and a Zagg keyboard case for it. It looks funny – “2005 called, they want their Netbook back” – but actually works really well on the tray. I find my 13′ laptop too big for easy use in Economy.


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