Seven expert tips for getting into the inflight work zone

Business travel typically mean working at 30,000 feet – here are some strategies to stay productive but still enjoy your flight.

By David Flynn, September 11 2019
Seven expert tips for getting into the inflight work zone

For many travellers, the moment the plane takes off is when their holiday really begins. It’s an increasingly rare slab of time to relax, watch a movie, read a book, have a short daytime snooze – or, if the flight’s long enough, to do all of those.

But for business travellers, much of that time in the air is given over to work. Some argue that it’s even more productive than being on the ground because you can focus for hours on a single project without phone calls or emails.

If there’s work to be done during your flight, here are some strategies to stay on track.

1. Charge your laptop at the airport lounge

Yes, the very latest laptops boast battery life lasting over eight hours. But in practice, and over time, that can diminish – and you don't want to get caught short – so get into the habit of plugging the laptop in at the airport before an international flight, in case you can’t rely on an inflight recharge.

Charge your laptop at the airport lounge.
Charge your laptop at the airport lounge.

And that happens more that you may think, Sometimes the power socket in your seat won’t work, and if it’s a full flight you can’t be moved to a seat where there’s juice on tap. Some older aircraft and seats have a restricted AC power flow that's insufficient to charge a larger-screen laptop.

Part of this is to also add a multi-plug AC adaptor to your carry-on kit. This isn't just for use in airport lounges which have only a local outlet, such as you may encounter during a transit stopover.

It can also be useful to ensure a tight fit into the aircraft's in-seat AC outlet, especially for Apple laptops where the relatively heavy power supply coupled with short AC pins (such as the US type) can make the power brickette unsteady and see it too easily knocked out of the socket.

2. Drown out the noise

Noise-cancelling headphones are almost a must-have for your travel kit.

Even if you’re not listening to music, slip these on and flick the switch to push down chatter and clatter in the cabin plus that constant mind-numbing drone of aircraft engines.

If you don't own a set of quality noise-cancelling headphones, add these to your shopping list.
If you don't own a set of quality noise-cancelling headphones, add these to your shopping list.

Just be sure to pack a spare AA or AAA battery into the headphone case in case you need a mid-flight battery swap – or, in the case of headphones which use a rechargeable battery, bring along the appropriate USB cable to top them up during the flight.

3. Spread out

If your frequent flyer status or the flight’s passenger load allows it, request an empty seat next to yours so you can spread out your work using that spare seat as well as its tray table.

You’ll also be able to wedge your laptop bag under that seat during flight, to keep everything within reach without compromising your own precious legroom.

4. Be realistic

Set realistic expectations of how much work you’ll do on the flight. Rarely will a ten hour trip mean ten solid hours of work. It might not even mean five hours of work.

It’s all too easy in that rushed day before you travel to tell yourself that you’ll catch up during the flight, you’ll bash out that report or presentation uninterrupted.

The best intentions can go astray once you're settled into your seat with a glass of wine...
The best intentions can go astray once you're settled into your seat with a glass of wine...

But you never feel as chirpy in flight as on the ground. There’s less oxygen circulating in the cabin, along with higher cabin pressure and lower humidity levels, all of which contribute to you feeling a bit tired and not nearly as productive. And this is before that glass or two of wine…

5. Don’t forget to sleep!

That said, some people get ‘into the zone’ and can work all the way through a long flight. But this can be the fast track to jetlag, especially on flights to the US which touch down early in the morning.

If your body clock is still set to Australian time when you land in the US, you’re in for one of the most unproductive days you can image – and one which could easily negate the benefits of working all the way through your flight.

So pace yourself, and plan what duration of the flight you’ll work through and when you’ll grab some shut-eye.

Don't short-change yourself on sleep, especially on flights to the US.
Don't short-change yourself on sleep, especially on flights to the US.

And remember: you’re guaranteed to have a less restful sleep in the plane than you would at home, and you’ll probably end up waking almost hours before landing, as breakfast is being served.

6. Take advantage of the 'elevated' experience

There's something special about being above the clouds. You can leave your work-a-day world behind and let your mind wander. So think twice about a heavy-duty session hammering away at your laptop, just like you might do at your office.

Put aside the laptop, pick up a pen and notebook, and give yourself the time and space to think...
Put aside the laptop, pick up a pen and notebook, and give yourself the time and space to think...

Instead, sit back and think. Think about that project, that new business idea, that change to a process. Swap the functional mode of keyboard and screen for a more creative, free-thinking approach. It could turn out to be the most productive part of your flight.

7. Plan your work, then work to that plan

Meals make for a complication in all this. Most flights departing Australia tend to serve a meal within two hours of take-off, which can be just when you’re firing on all cylinders with that report or presentation.

After dinner and a glass of wine you’re well into the flight and tiredness starts to settle in.

One way to handle this is to attack the largest and most urgent slabs of work as your priority. Use some time in the airport lounge to start getting them into shape – and keep working on them for the 20 minutes between boarding and when you're ready for take-off, then pick things up again once you're flying.

By the time your meal arrives you'll usually ready for a break. If not, opt for the ‘express meal’ to save time, or ask that your meal be held back and served when you're ready. This is, of course, where 'dine on demand' comes to the fore.

Post-dinner can be 'optional' time for attacking small tasks such as emails, invoices and shorter documents – basically nibbling away at the workload for another hour or two – but at pretty much any time you can switch off to catch a movie or some sleep, still having tackled the bulk of your work.

What are your tips for working inflight, or do you treat each flight as a well-eared slab of downtime?


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

20 Mar 2014

Total posts 135

My tip for getting as much work done as possible while flying is fly First Class! you can be comfortable, spread out and have a true proper work space. I have completed complex CAD work and 3D design while in the air and its been truly spcetacular!


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2012

Total posts 366

So my company travel policy doesn't allow me to fly First (shock, horror, can you believe it), but all these tips are great, especially the one about being realistic on how much work you'll get done. My favourite tip is using the time to clean out my email inbox and my files = a LOT of deleting which I just never have time to do day to day.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

08 Jun 2018

Total posts 98

David, all good suggestions. Personally I find it better to catch up on those things such as clearing / responding to email or the more creative thinking processes than actually doing too much in terms or report / presentation creation. It's also a great time to catch up on things you need to read. I would never (unless absolutely unavoidable) leave anything time critical to a flight. You never know when you're going to have a flight with dreadful turbulence or a truly nightmarish neighbour.

One thing you didn't mention, and it's something that surprises me a lot, is the rather laid back approach to data security that some have while travelling. Leaving papers in full view in the lounge, laptops with sensitive data on display. I remember a couple of years ago flying back from Singapore and a senior exec from one of the big 4 Aussie banks was working on a restructure presentation that I could have read from end to end if I so desired. People need to be careful!!

The trend for seating layouts now thankfully leads to greater privacy

Etihad - Etihad Guest

09 Jun 2019

Total posts 8

On long-haul day flights I like to work with the window shade up, so that natural light comes in. But usually everyone else has their blinds down, trying to make it like night time in the cabin. Should I ignore the disapproving looks that sometimes come from fellow passengers?

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