This year, one of the most crowded air travel years on record, has been a tough one on anyone who's had to conduct business on the move.
In a year of delays and cancellations, business travelers have had to call on all of their resourcefulness and creativity to stay productive. To say that the needs of business travelers have not been helped by the current realities of air travel is to put it mildly. It has been a banner year for missed flights and therefore missed meetings. Business travelers have had to depart ever earlier for the airport, yet have set records worrying about missed connections.
What's changing? Perhaps the most significant trend is that travel has rebounded in a big way, and continues to boom. Not surprisingly, airlines, airports, and air traffic control systems have been hard-pressed to keep up. Terminals crowded with leisure travelers continue to put the squeeze on business travelers, who seldom anymore enjoy any peaceful personal space, let alone access to that rare electrical outlet or bulkhead seat for stretching their legs.
Despite the hordes, however, the canny road warrior can still make headway by taking advantage of several trends. Perhaps the most positive of these is expanded Wi-Fi access at airports, as well as Internet kiosks where those lugging laptops can "connect" and recharge batteries. Still, airport business centers remain the sanest refuge for the business traveler. And more and more airlines are now offering day-passes for their business centers and lounges.
One trend that is making laptops less essential on business trips is the rise of the BlackBerry. Like everyone else, I have a love/hate relationship with my BlackBerry. I love the fact that it is lighter and takes up less space than my laptop. It holds a charge longer than a laptop. On the other hand, my BlackBerry doesn't have spell-check or access to the many programs, attachments or network applications my notebook gives me. Easily the biggest drawback of any PDA is the tiny keyboard, which has the unintended consequence of causing emails sent by this method to seem overly terse and direct. The other difference between a BlackBerry and a laptop is that in using the latter you're more likely to email proactively, while the BlackBerry tends to encourage reactive emailing.
The trend toward tighter security at airports is having the unintended consequence of lightening the load normally toted by the road warrior. That's because many business travelers are not only trading in their laptops for PDAs, they've taken to shipping luggage ahead to their hotels.
If airports are tough places to work, airplanes are beyond the pale. Clearly, no one who ever had to do a lot of airborne laptop keystroking ever designed an airplane. Sure, there are fine first class and even enhanced business class accommodations. Unfortunately, the cost-cutting trend at many companies means you'll probably be booking an economy fare. Traveling economy is, in my opinion, a false economy because it's such an inherently difficult environment for anyone wanting to get any work accomplished. Noisy, claustrophobic, and lacking power plugs (smart laptoppers can check out SeatGuru.com to see where the few power ports are on their jet), the low-fare option is the ultimate challenge for any businessperson seeking to be productive in the air.
Laptoppers who get stuck behind someone who decides to hit the recline button are just plain out of luck. When deciding which laptop to purchase, it is important to spend some time really thinking about how you will use it. Do you really need a full desktop replacement? Will you need a larger screen? How many DVDs will you watch? All of these options add weight and size. This will make the use of the laptop on the road more challenging.
Despite my best intentions, I find that I am just way more productive working in my hotel room. Most good hotels have business centers and many have free Internet service. In fact, the ubiquity of Wi-Fi at hotels means you and your laptop are no longer confined to your stuffy room. Now you can work at practically any location where your laptop can detect a Wi-Fi signal, including in the lobby or even on the beach at some hotels!
On the horizon — and actually in operation at some overseas airlines — is a new trend that should send a shiver down every road warrior's spine: cellphones on planes. I mean, think of the potential for conflict. On the other hand, it could be that a counter-technology as simple as noise-canceling headphones will solve the issue. Still, I shudder at the mere idea that my seatmates might be chattering nonstop on my next nonstop.
Clearly, the life of the road warrior entails stress. One of the good things coming out of that is that businesspeople are dressing more casually and comfortably on flights. They recognize that long waits in airports, on the tarmac, and everywhere in between are making it more difficult to remain neat, fresh, and businesslike. The trend toward comfort togs is a trend I like. Sure, I'd prefer air travel to be faster and more efficient; but in the meantime, my advice is to invest in clothes that travel well — even if you can't.