30,000 Feet High And Rising To The Challenge: Staying Productive In The Air

How to engineer your non-first-class flight into a comfortable chance to get serious work done.



Your time in the air can be really productive. The lack of (most) electronic distractions, combined with being surrounded by strangers, can bring out the best focus in travelers. But only if you plan ahead.

Bring a good laptop–and make sure it’s got the files you need. Be reachable, even by phone, but only for serious situations. And give yourself the space you need to do anything other than be miserable. Here’s how to get those things in order before you’re hundreds of miles from the office.

Bring the right laptop, or go tablet-only

Do some digging, and you’ll find that the average tray table sizes on standard passenger-class airlines are either a closely guarded secret, or just too variable to really sum up. In any case, most airplanes used today don’t have trays designed for laptop use. Especially after the guy in front of you decides to kick back and watch Transformers: Dark of the Moon on his own device.

If you fly a lot and full-on typing is absolutely critical to you during your air time, go with an 11-inch computer to fit nearly any tray, even reclined. The MacBook Air, one of Lenovo’s ultra-portable models, or, if you’re mostly working online and in Google apps, a Chromebook fit the mold. But before you do that, you owe it to yourself to read Marco Arment’s take on laptop size, weight, and power. Consider whether you’re buying the laptop equivalent of a two-door Maserati or monstrous SUV when, in most cases, you want a sensible sedan, and an iPad or small computer as your “bicycle.”

Get the best possible coach seat

Now that you’re being realistic about your table tray, get optimistic about getting the best possible room for your work. Figure out your airline and flight number, but before you book your ticket, visit You’ll get a good read on where the best seats are on your specific model of plane, and you’ll avoid the seats that give the air travel industry its current reputation.


But don’t think the airlines aren’t aware of SeatGuru and the many factors that make up a good seat. Some, like Delta, American, and United, are giving their coach customers with lots of flyer points first picks of those good seats. You’re left to decide, then, whether to avoid them to increase your chances of a better seat, or use all the web and ticket-timing tools at your disposal to join that upper-lower-class group yourself.

Keep your stuff available online and off (without every saying “sync”)

We’ve covered the low-hassle ways to work online and off before, and it’s especially important when you’re about to jump on a long plane ride. It’s easy to forget files in the rush of packing and timing your trip, and in-flight Wi-Fi is rarely rock-solid. The short version: Use Chrome and Offline Google Mail, install Cloud Connect or OffiSync to auto-sync your Office files, and let Dropbox back up your desktop or other important folders using tools like DropboxFolderSync or MacDropAny.

Send text messages and make in-flight calls the easy way

Some people don’t like how Google Voice requires adopting a new phone number to use it (unless you happen to be a Sprint customer). But signing up for that free number can pay off when, using nearly any browser and your in-flight Wi-Fi, you can send free text messages. Sign them off with a short identifier (“From Kevin P.”), and your on-the-ground recipients won’t mind much. If you brought along your iPhone and the in-flight Wi-Fi seems particularly strong, you can use Talkatone for any voice calls you really, really need. It’s handy for flights where Skype is specifically blocked; the major problem is the guilty looks you’ll get.

Take advantage of the distraction-free time

All those tips are for work that must be done on a computer or tablet. But think about the work that’s hard to do specifically because of the distractions of your web-connected life. The topical, smart book you’ve been meaning to read? The job performance evaluations you can never get time to put your opinions into? Now’s the time to break them out.

I once told my former uber-boss at Gawker Media, Nick Denton, that my editor had emailed that he’d be late arriving in New York, but that everything was looking good with a particular project. “From a plane,” I added, sporting an eager smile. “He’s got pretty good Wi-Fi.” I recall that Denton looked wistful. “That’s almost a shame,” he said. “(A plane) used to be where you’d bring a book or magazine, and learn something without the boss waiting on you.” Take your own opportunity to think about your work, rather than think of how much of it there is.


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