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The Rules for Working on a Plane

Photography: askpang

If there was a prize available for dedication to the job and the ability to do it in the most trying of conditions then Lee Unkrich would surely have won it. Earlier this year, the Pixar director pasted a photo of himself on Twitter editing Toy Story 3 while sitting on a flight at 36,000 feet. Of course, he cheated. Judging by the snazzy seat back, it looks like Lee wasn’t typing with his knees behind his ears in Cattle Class. He also broke the rules. Not the rules that prevent you from grabbing your bag as the plane touches down and standing by the exit or spending the entire flight in the bathroom, a private cabin where there’s room to stretch your legs, but just about all of the unspoken rules that dictate the right and wrong ways to work on a plane.

The rules are new. They’ve only developed over the last few years as long haul flights have added electricity sockets that make it possible to work without keeping an eye on a computer’s battery level and as some have added Internet access. Now that it’s possible to take an entire office with you in your carry-on baggage and plug it into a plane’s infrastructure, today’s digital, high-flying nomads need to know what they can and can’t do when they’re working in the clouds.

The first thing you can’t do is expect privacy. Take your laptop to a café and you can try to pick a seat with the back to the wall so that nobody is reading over your shoulder. You can certainly expect a table of your own so that no one is sharing your eye-space. Mostly though, you can rely on the fact that the other café customers are too busy with their own lives to show more than a passing interest in yours.

On a plane, passengers have no lives. Their entertainment choices are limited by whatever happens to be on the screen in front of them and their diversions are restricted to the media material they’ve brought with them. With hours to kill, it doesn’t matter whether your job involves creating a new battle strategy for Afghanistan or counting dots on a screen, it’s going to look more interesting than the back of the next seat.

What Happens on the Plane, Stays on the Plane

That limits the kind of work you can do. Putting on the screen anything even remotely confidential is out of bounds — such as a new battle strategy for Afghanistan or the unedited rushes of a brand-new Disney movie. And you can’t write anything about your fellow travelers either. Lee Unkrich went on to tweet that how his neighbor showed little interest in what he was doing, a hint that she was missing a giant opportunity. That was probably just as well. She might have been less than happy to see herself being discussed with tens of thousands of people thousands of miles away. It’s not a good idea to irritate someone you’re stuck next to for seven hours.

If the first rule of working on a plane then is not to work on anything confidential, the second is that what other people are doing on the plane stays on the plane — especially if they’re doing it in the next seat.

The third rule is not to bother anyone, another rule that restricts the kind of work you can do. Making a fitness video using your computer’s web cam is obviously out but so is anything that involves lots of speaker noise, shouts of frustration or pacing around. In fact, if you know you’re going to be working on the plane, it’s not a rule but it is a good idea to book a window seat. Your own ability to take microbreaks will be limited but you won’t be forcing other people to ask you to remove your headphones and lift your computer every time they need to stroll the aisle. That would bother them too. Some working travelers have even been known to take their own thermos flasks of coffee, a choice that means they don’t have to take frequent trips to the galley to load up on fresh beans — an essential lubricant for some when it comes to keeping their main work-muscle greased. (On the other hand, if that coffee means lots of running to the bathroom, then it’s probably best to work without it).

Don’t Do It Unless You Have To

The second most important rule though is to choose the right kind of work for you to do on the plane.

No one, not even the most Donald Trump of bosses, expects an employee to put in the hours while wedged into an Economy Class seat. A flight then is one time when you don’t have to work if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to feel guilty about your choice. You are free to relax with a DVD and to use the seat’s electricity socket to play computer games for seven hours if that makes the journey less painful. If you do think about work, choose something important, that isn’t more irritating than waiting for the flight to end and that needs to be done right away. Adding the final touches to a talk or presentation, for example, makes a good choice. That’s information that’s going to be shared anyway, so it’s unlikely to break any confidentiality rules. It’s likely to be something you’ll need shortly after you arrive so it’s suitably urgent. And it’s not something that requires a huge amount of focus and brain power so it shouldn’t hurt too much. A bit of light-hearted blogging should also work but reading and research make for some of the best uses of flying time.

But the most important rule to follow when working on a plane is not to do it unless you really have to — and unless you don’t mind the rest of the plane thinking that you’re a workaholic who’s too disorganized to take a few hours off. When other passengers see someone working on a plane, as a rule, that’s what they think.

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