How to fly through your work

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, all of the above.

I question if inflight Internet is really worthwhile unless you have an urgent need to send or receive email during the flight.

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 make the most of your time.

Charge your laptop at the airport lounge

Sure, the very latest laptops – especially those thin and light 'Ultrabooks' – boast battery life of more than eight hours.

However, you should still get into the habit of plugging in at the airport before an international flight, just in case you can't rely on an inflight recharge.

Sometimes the power socket in your seat won't work, and if it's a full flight you might not be able to move to a seat where there's juice on tap.

I've also been on several flights where the in-seat AC power works but simply won't charge my laptop, something the tech boffins say can be common on older aircraft (including Boeing 747s).


Be prepared

Not all planes are fitted with power sockets that cater for a variety of plug configurations, so you'd be wise to include a multi-plug AC adaptor in your carry-on bag.

These essential travel gadgets cost around $50 from travel accessory shops, but you can also buy them at the airport or even duty-free on most flights.

These adaptors also come in handy if you have to break your journey with a stopover at an airport. Many airport lounges have desks and tables fitted with only a local socket, not one that accepts the most common plug shapes.

Drown out the noise

Another good addition to your travel kit is a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. 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.

Just be sure to pack a spare battery into the headphone case, in case you need a mid-flight changeover.

Sky-high surfing?

Only Emirates and Singapore Airlines offer an Internet service on overseas flights from Australia, and neither Qantas nor Virgin Australia do so on domestic routes.

Prices start around $10-$15 for 10-25MB of data, which is sufficient for a few bursts of email and some basic web browsing.

But don't expect anywhere near the speed of your office, home or even the local cafe.

I question if inflight Internet is really worthwhile unless you have an urgent need to send or receive email during the flight.

Spread out

If your 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.

In economy, consider an iPad

The tight squeeze in economy – and the propensity for passengers in front of you to recline their seat and eat into your already-limited space – means that even using a compact 13-inch notebook can be a cramped affair.

Unless you need to run heavy-duty software, consider using an iPad fitted with a keyboard cover. It's smaller than any notebook and has exceptional battery life, but with the right apps it's still good enough for Office-grade productivity at 30,000 feet.

Be realistic

Set realistic expectations of how much work you'll do on the flight.

Rarely will a 10-hour trip mean 10 solid hours of work. It might not even be five hours.

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.

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 that's before that glass or two of wine ...

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 that touch down early in the morning.

If your body clock is still set to Australian time when you land in the US early in the day, you're in for one of the most unproductive days you can imagine – 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.

Of course, don't short-change yourself on sleep. You're guaranteed to have a less restful sleep on the plane than you would at home, and you'll probably end up waking hours before landing, as breakfast is being served.

Plan your work

Meals make for another complication.

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.

I tend to attack the largest and most urgent slabs of work as my priority.

I 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 we're ready for take-off.

By the time my meal arrives I'm usually ready for a break.

If not, I opt for the "express meal" to save time, or ask that my meal be held back and served when I'm ready (naturally, these aren't options in economy class).

Post-dinner is when I can hammer away at small tasks such as emails, invoices and shorter documents, and basically nibble at the workload for another two hours.

But I know that at pretty much any time I can switch off, yet have still knocked over the bulk of my work.

And that's close to the first half of a long flight spoken for. Settle back with a movie and maybe a glass of wine, or just listen to some music on your iPad and relax.

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

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT