Flight of the Nerd

“Please fasten your seat belts and return your pocket protectors and laptops to their full, upright, and locked position. The Nerd Bird is ready for takeoff.”


In the mid-1980s, the era of hostile takeovers and junk-bond mania, Wall Street’s movers and shakers loved to fly the Concorde. They’d hurtle between New York and London, planning the next big deal. In the mid-1990s, the era of Internet capitalism and IPO fever, different people are calling the shots — and they frequent a different flight. So fasten your seat belt, cover up that gravy stain on your corporate-logoed polo shirt, and take a flight on the Nerd Bird.


Twice a day Monday through Thursday, and three times a day on Friday, American Airlines operates the only non-stop flight between Austin, Texas and San Jose, California — the world’s two leading centers of semiconductor manufacturing and software development. The three-and-one-half hour, 1,471 mile-long flights are crowded — and always overbooked. Talk about frequent flyers! Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the semiconductor giant with headquarters in Silicon Valley and big factories in Texas, generates more than 20,000 trips per year on the Nerd Bird.

For the engineers, salespeople, and executives with Dell, Texas Instruments, IBM, Motorola, Intel, Schlumberger, and all the other companies living at both ends of the digital pipeline between Texas and California, the Nerd Bird is the commuter flight of choice and a natural extension of the workplace. It boasts perhaps the highest laptop-per-person ratio in the airline industry. As one flight attendant complained, “People are so busy working on their laptops, I can barely get the meal service done!” It’s also a strangely quiet flight. “I can’t talk about confidential stuff on-board this tube,” explains Chris Lewis, a sales manager for Applied Materials. “All my competitors are here too!”

For “Fast Company,” the Nerd Bird offered an up-close look at the habits and culture of the flying nerd — including digital celebrities such as computer entrepreneur Michael Dell, chip czar Andy Grove, and spook-turned-technowizard Bobby Ray Inman. We recently took a round-trip flight from Texas to California and handed out hundreds of questionnaires to the jet-propelled propeller-heads. Here’s the hard data — and the digital dish — on what we found.


Nerds know who they are even if they don’t admit it.

Data: 60% of survey respondents said they know the flight is called the Nerd Bird and 35% admit they’re nerds. 37% said they were in denial about being nerds.

Dish: We asked one passenger if he was a nerd. “I carry a differential-equations problem solver and a periodic table in my wallet,” he replied. “What do you think?”

Nerds like to play with new toys.

Data: 75% said they carry a laptop, 56% said they carry a pager, 52% said they carry a cell-phone, 12% said they carry a personal digital assistant. Only one person carries a slide rule, and only one wears a pocket protector


Dish: A Nerd Bird regular remembers the first time someone on the flight opened up IBM’s “butterfly” ThinkPad : “The computer immediately sparked a conversation with this guy’s neighbor. By the end of the flight the laptop had been passed all around the plane.”

Nerds fly in formation — and know how to have fun (sort of).

Data: 35% said they take the Nerd Bird at least once every two weeks, and 31% said they take it once a month. 58% have a favorite seat. Working on their laptop is the favorite inflight activity for 35%; no one admitted to playing computer games during the flight.

Dish: What’s the most fun you’ve had on the Nerd Bird? “I finished coding a completely dynamically generated, data-driven Web site,” boasts one Nerd. What does he do when he’s not having fun in the air? “I work on the configuration of massively parallel computing systems.”


The Experts Speak : 4 Ways to Tell Your Friend is a Nerd.

1. “His electronic toys cost more than his car.”
-B. Basil, internal auditor, IBM

2. “She spends more time on the Web than watching TV.”
-David Boyd, systems analyst, Applied Materials

3. “He doesn’t know the difference between Clinton and Dole, but can define nanosecond, megahertz, and gigabit.”
-John Greenagel, director of corporate communications, AMD

4. “Want to see my ‘Nerd Pride’ pocket protector?”
-Dr. Saf Asghar, fellow, AMD