Getting down to business when you're flying in economy

By David Flynn, February 9 2017
Getting down to business when you're flying in economy

Not all business travel takes place in business class.

A large number of professionals shuttle back and forth through the skies wedged into economy where they rub shoulders with holidaymakers, students, backpackers, young families and grandparents.

In fact, many corporate travel budgets that were pruned during the GFC never bounced back to the heady days when business class was the norm for the business traveller.

Company policy, limited project budgets and tight-fisted clients all play a role in pushing business travellers towards the back of the bus.

'Economy only' has become a common corporate mantra on shorter international trips, including the eight-hour haul to Singapore or Hong Kong. Many even have to make do with economy on regular trips all the way to the US or, worse still, London.

At least regular travellers can use their frequent flyer status to soften the blow with lounge access and a better chance of those unexpected last-minute upgrades.

But while being a business traveller in an economy class seat is nobody's idea of fun, here are ten ways to make it less of a chore.

1. Plan ahead

Choose the flights that work best for you and your schedule.

Heading to Hong Kong? Qantas may have just one flight a day while Cathay Pacific can have three or four, depending on which Australian city you're departing from.

If your company isn't locked into flying with Qantas you might prefer a Cathay Pacific flight which departs early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

2. Choose your seat with care

The 'best' economy seats are typically ones with a bit of extra legroom, although you may have to pay for that privilege; seats located away from the baby bassinet positions at bulkheads; and seats not too close to the loo or the galley.

Even if the good seats are all gone, you can at least avoid booking yourself into a bad seat that will expose you to any or all of the above.

Bulkhead rows – the ones behind the cabin divider walls – are a mixed bag. In some aircraft they've got an extra few inches of legroom, in others it's a fairly tight fit and you'd be better off being able to stretch your feet out under the seat in front of you.

3. Get an empty seat next to you

Several airlines do their best to ensure the seat next to a top-tier frequent flyer travelling in economy remains empty. In the argot of frequent flyers, this is called a 'shadow'.

It's one of the perks of holding Platinum status with Qantas, for example.

You can place your carry-on bag under the seat next to you to keep your own legroom free. The empty seat's meal tray can hold your drinks or snacks while your own tray is utilised for your work materials.

And you can use the empty seat to spread out your inflight work a little more.

But don't leave that to chance: ask at the check-in desk or the lounge.

Many Platinum-grade frequent flyers will tell you of how somebody was seated next to them even though there were plenty of empty seats throughout the plane.

Even if you're a Gold rather than Platinum frequent flyer it's worth asking nicely, explaining that you've got quite a bit of work to get through and would appreciate the extra elbow room.

You may need to agree to sit further down the plane, but for a long international flight it can be worth it.

4. Arrive early and work in the lounge

Don't expect to get as much work done in the air as you might think. The minute the person ahead of you reclines their seat it's usually 'game over', at least if you've got a laptop.

This is one area where a tablet with a detachable keyboard can make all the difference.

An alternative strategy: arrive at the airport earlier than usual and get down to work at the lounge.

The best example of this is if you're a Qantas Platinum card-holder flying out of Sydney.

Qantas offers all-day checkin at Sydney's T1 international terminal, so even you're headed all the way to London on QF1 in economy (for which you have our condolences) you could check in at 11am for your 5pm flight, have lunch, knock over plenty of work (ask at the lounge reception desk about booking one of the office suites) and maybe fit in a relaxing spa session before your flight.

5. Power up your tech

Even if your economy seat has access to a USB jack and shared AC socket, get your laptop, tablet and smartphone charged up to 100% in the lounge.... because you never know when your seat will be the borked one where the volts aren't flowing.

6. Use priority boarding

While most business class seats have ample space in the overhead bins for your carry-on gear, in economy it can be a bit of a bunfight.

It's a good idea to leave the lounge a little earlier and be at the departure gate when boarding begins.

Your frequent flyer status will let you skip the economy line and board in the business class lane, so you get first dibs on overhead luggage space.

(Getting settled into your seat earlier also affords a little extra time to deal with any last-minute emails via your smartphone while everybody else is still boarding.)

7. Maximise your space

Free up space in the seat pocket for your tablet or reading glasses – or just gain a little extra knee room – by tossing the inflight magazine, duty-free catalogue and everything bar the safety card into the overhead bin.

8. Order a 'special' meal

Most airlines will let business class passengers pretty much dine at their leisure (although you may need to forego hot dishes).

Not so in economy, where the meals are served en masse and the empty dishes aren't taken away until maybe 30-45 minutes after you've finished.

When travelling in economy, my workaround is to order a 'special' meal before I fly.

Vegetarian, kosher, diabetic, gluten-free – there's plenty to choose from, and these meals are all served ahead of the rest of the economy cabin.

If you're a bit of a fast eater as I am, there's every chance you can finish your meal and press the Call Attendant button to have your tray taken away before everybody else is served.

That way you can get straight back to working, watching a video or getting a head-start on a kip. As a bonus, you'll also enjoy a refreshingly different and probably healthier meal than the usual 'beef or chicken?' choice.

9. Drown out the noise

You do have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones in your carry-on bag, right?

I'm a fan of the Bose QuietComfort series, although there are plenty of good alternatives from Audio-Technica, Sony and Sennheiser, among others.

(Stay away from Beats unless you want a high price tag matched to bottom-heavy bass: Beats might rock the doof-doof but are not much chop at anything else).

If most of your travel is in economy there's precious little room around your seat for keeping carry-on kit close at hand, so you might want to consider compact earbuds like the Bose QuietComfort 20. They'll take up much less space than larger over-the-ear cans.

10. Apply for an upgrade

If none of that makes you less downcast at the thought of spending a dozen bum-numbing hours sitting in economy, use your frequent flyer points to apply for an upgrade to premium economy or business class.

The trick is that not all economy tickets are eligible for an upgrade.

In the case of Qantas international flights, for example, you won't be able to apply for an upgrade if you're travelling on a Sale fare, which is the cheapest economy ticket (travel agents will book these in N, O and Q ticket categories).

If you want to use your points to sit at the pointy end of the plane, be sure you're booked on an economy Saver or economy Flex fare.

What are your tips for the business traveller flying in economy?


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Jul 2014

Total posts 141

The fruit platter is a good option as a special meal on Qantas if you've eaten in the lounge already.

27 Sep 2011

Total posts 37

I always do this domestically, but internationally it's not enough food!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Apr 2016

Total posts 10

Finally, an article for those of us who do not get to fly in the pointy end for work.  Thanks.  Can we have more of these please? 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Jun 2014

Total posts 20

Great article...
as a 1.93m economy business flyer good to hear about the Shadow seat when I miss out on extra legroom.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Nov 2011

Total posts 362

Have to agree, nice to see some articles for those of us down the back.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Jun 2011

Total posts 88

"borked" lol                    

If you have to travel Economy for work, evenings flights are best - because you need sleep anyway right?

 That is why QF medium-haul ex-AU services to Asia suck. They're all daytime. Precious hours lost if you cannot get a bulkhead seat or if the seat does not come with a power source.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Nov 2011

Total posts 362

Personally, if  my employer insists that I travel in Y for work, then they lose the right for me to work on the plane. No matter what time of the day it is.


12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1479

I would rather seek better employer - either send me as human been or do not ask me to fly other side of globe.

23 Feb 2015

Total posts 262

When I have to travel economy I always choose the day flight, as sleep is impossible and I am then ruined the next day anyway.

27 Sep 2011

Total posts 37

You want to try to sleep in economy? I'd far rather a day time flight where I can watch movies, read, play games, and get a good night's sleep at the other end


19 Sep 2013

Total posts 197

Totally agree with Russell - when I had to travel 25+ hours for work in Y and expected to hit the ground running at the other end, then my sole focus was to have as much sleep as I could on the trip. So no work while on the move.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Aug 2016

Total posts 63

Great article David. Not everybody lives in SYD, so don't forget about the MEL First Lounge (not everybody wants to fly via SYD and given their Dom>Intl transfer MEL is a better place to transfer). Doubt BNE First will ever be as good

11 Dec 2016

Total posts 12

Not a bad article, but there are times when the nightmare becomes reality & have to travel in Y on an airline with No Status - such as flights being delayed & cancelled, or rescheduling for priority clients & workplace emergencies.

11 Mar 2012

Total posts 315

You fly me in Y, I sleep at the other end for a day thanks!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 May 2015

Total posts 30

Sorry David, but economy means coach only. I totally agree with Russell, if a company wants to fly you any class lower than business then its purely for transport purposes. My company scaled back business to premium or economy and I've tried working under these conditions (both long and short and long haul) and gave up. Limited work space, making way for people moving in and out, not always getting my preferred seat (dumped in the middle), reclining passengers and the noise cancelling headphones will NOT block the sudden yelp or scream from a child or animated conversation around you. Whenever I fly now business can wait.  

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2015

Total posts 123

Good to see that our community feedback led to an article like this. Often, if you ask for them to block a seat, they do, even if one isn't a frequent flyer.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

27 Aug 2014

Total posts 40

agree with other's sentiments that if company policy says it has to be economy, then I don't work as in reading or writing documents etc, but I do some "strategic thinking".  Can be very useful.

For the long hauls I also get there for 2 nights in a bed before the first meeting.

23 Feb 2015

Total posts 262

I used to do the same Ivan, but hate having more time away from the family than would otherwise be the case. One night is the most I allow myself now but it isn't always enough.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jul 2016

Total posts 12

I always try to go for exit row. 14C, 14D, 14A and 14F on QF B738. extra legroom......ok it ain't J but close your eyes and zzzzzz.......and I always eat in the lounge. 

10 Aug 2015

Total posts 117

This is s start from Aus BT but it still needs a bit more research and relevance to give insights into efficient economy travel.

My little tip is when flying in economy skip the lounge (you may not have access anyway given how few SC given out in economy) and have a nice meal in the best restaurant in the terminal which is a legitimate expense. Also make sure you have a decent meal, again which can be expensed, during any connection.

The other point is not to whinge too much if you are asked to fly economy. My former boss at the end of the year appreciated how much sacrifice I had made to travel in economy and gave me a rather hefty bonus. No one likes a whinger.

05 May 2016

Total posts 630

I'd rather eat in the lounge and have one less expense to claim for the trip unless I can't stand any of the food offerings in the lounge.


16 May 2015

Total posts 18

The number of desks in the QF First Class Lounge has fallen a lot over the last year. Much more difficult to work there now.

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