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12 tips for actually getting work done on a plane

By Hannah Herman · June 10, 2024

I fly a lot, sometimes on work days, and that means I'm often faced with the tricky situation of having to actually be productive while on an airplane. You know how hard it can be: between reclaiming space from the armrest hog next door to waiting for the snack cart to come around—it's not really built for focus. 

Because planes are so different from our normal working environments, it takes some experimenting to find what plane-work routine is best for you. I've had plenty of opportunities to test things out—and I've talked about it probably too much with my friends and coworkers. Based on those experiences and conversations, here are a few of my favorite tips for getting stuff done while cruising at 30,000 feet. 

12 tips for working on an airplane

  • Get comfy

  • Explore Wi-Fi options ahead of time

  • Choose what you'll work on beforehand

  • Focus on low-stakes work

  • Set your Slack status to away

  • Open your docs before you board

  • Give your kids iPads

  • Bring a tablet for yourself, too

  • Use a privacy screen

  • Turn off AirDrop

  • Wear headphones

  • Be considerate

1. Get comfy 

If you're anything like me, you can't work when you're not physically comfortable (which is why the fancy office chair industry is booming). But planes are notoriously cramped, with seat pitch shrinking consistently over the last few decades. Plus the cabin is almost always too hot or cold—meaning it can be hard to focus on anything other than wishing you'd brought a thicker sweater.

Getting comfortable on a plane may seem impossible, but here are a few ways to at least get closer:

  • If you tend to get cold on flights, pack that sweater or even a small blanket. (If you tend to get hot, dress for the occasion.)

  • Depending on how important it is that you get something done on that particular flight, it might be worth shelling out for extra legroom or trying to snag an emergency exit row.

  • Go for a window seat. There's nothing more focus-breaking than having to get out of your seat every time someone in your row needs to use the bathroom (and again when they come back).

If you can create a nice little nook, you're more likely to want to do work in the first place. 

2. Explore Wi-Fi options ahead of time

We've all been there: you planned to work, only to find out your flight has no Wi-Fi—or worse, it costs $50 for an hour of mediocre connectivity.

That's why I highly recommend scoping out the Wi-Fi options before you get on the plane. Some airlines offer fairly reliable (and free!) in-flight Wi-Fi, while other airlines only offer free in-flight messaging or internet that feels straight out of 1999. Investigate the situation before you board so you know whether internet will be available, how much bandwidth you'll get, and at what price. 

And if you're flying long haul, keep in mind that Wi-Fi reliability can vary over long stretches. My recent flight to Bali had great internet the entire way, but the connection on my flight home was a lot more spotty.

3. Choose what you'll work on beforehand

It's hard to feel motivated to work when you travel. Maybe you woke up super early to catch your flight, maybe you're tired from a long week at a conference—there's just so much else going on. 

If you have to work while in flight, try to give yourself some structure. "Choose what you'll work on ahead of time, and be specific," my former colleague Ellie suggests. "That way, you can make sure you have all the resources you need downloaded and ready to use. You're also more likely to get it done if it's a confined task."

This advice is great if, like me, you struggle with wanting to just nap on planes. But it also works if you simply want to maximize your productivity: just like when you're in your office, having a specific to-do list can help you get more done. 

4. Focus on low-stakes work

An airplane probably isn't the place to work on super important, time-sensitive work. My former editor Grace told me:

"Every time I've tried to work on a plane, I have some sort of technical difficulty—so maybe don't plan to finish your really important presentation on the way to presenting it. Pick something low-stakes to work on so if you can't get things to work, you're not in trouble."

But that doesn't mean your in-flight time is a total waste. In fact, a flight is the perfect time to knock out more passive work. That can include reading (and really digesting) documents or updates, reviewing others' work, and even loose brainstorming (after a glass of airplane wine, obviously). Personally, I relish those quiet few hours where I can step away from Slack and just focus on writing out thoughtful feedback on my team's latest project.

5. Open your docs before you board

Along with planning out what you'll work on beforehand, take a moment to open all the docs you'll need while in flight before you get on the plane. 

This step is especially important if you're using a cloud-based tool like Google Docs, where normally you'd need a stable internet connection to access docs and make changes. Instead, take a moment to click Make available offline under the File dropdown—that way, your work will be available whenever you need it, even without Wi-Fi. And it'll sync back up the next time you're connected. 

Turning on offline mode in Google Docs

Alternatively, you can use an offline tool like Microsoft Word or Pages, or even physical paper. Just make sure to save your work regularly and do not accidentally give your paper notes to the flight attendant when they come to collect your empty Diet Coke.

6. Set your Slack status to away

If the theme of this piece is "Airplane internet is unreliable," that also applies to apps like Slack and Zoom. It doesn't matter whether you're intending to log on from the plane—you might not be able to. So play it safe and assume that you'll be unavailable, and make sure people know by setting your Slack or Teams status to "In flight" or something similar.

Setting a Slack status to "on a plane"

The same goes for Zoom. Most airlines don't let you take calls in flight; the Wi-Fi literally doesn't allow it. And even if you can make calls, please don't. You can easily disrupt the other passengers—as was the case on my flight from Istanbul last month, where a passenger in the row behind me took work calls (on speaker, no less) in the middle of the night. 

7. Give your kids iPads

What if you're traveling for personal reasons, but you still need to do some work? Maybe you're quiet vacationing (don't do that) or just trying to push a project over the finish line—regardless of the reason, you might find yourself having to work while in flight…with your kids. 

It doesn't have to be a nightmare, though. If they're old enough, flights are a great time to be a bit more lenient about screen time. Give your kids an iPad with their favorite shows or some offline games already downloaded. If your kids are grade-school age, bring a few chapter books for them to curl up with—you can offer younger children a coloring book with mess-free markers or a few (quiet) toys to play and fidget with.

At the same time, don't have high hopes. If you're on a flight with your kids, your chances for undisrupted work time are pretty slim.

8. Bring a tablet for yourself, too

iPads aren't just for kids stuck in adult situations. A tablet can be a great tool for working on the go, especially on planes. It lets you work during take-off and landing, when you're required to stow larger electronics like laptops. Tablets are also lighter and smaller than most laptops, so they're easier to fit into a crammed-full carry-on bag—and much more suitable for those tiny economy seatback trays. 

9. Use a privacy screen

Airplanes are close quarters, so it's natural for your seatmates to get a glimpse (or ten) of your screen while in flight. If you're worried about prying eyes, get a privacy screen for your laptop. These special screen protectors make your screen appear dark when viewed from any angle besides straight on, so they're great for keeping other travelers from covertly reading along as you write that spicy email. 

Similarly, check with your company's security team before working from a plane or airport. Some companies require you to use a VPN or discourage the use of public Wi-Fi, which often isn't as secure as you might think it is. In any case, it's probably best to save confidential stuff for when you're home or at the office anyway.

10. Turn off AirDrop

This one's for my fellow iPhone users. If you fly frequently, you probably already know about the chaos that Apple's AirDrop feature has caused. But even if you're not bothered by receiving random pictures and files from strangers—which you should be, but that's above my paygrade—turning off AirDrop is a great way to prevent yourself from accidentally sending an important file to your fellow passengers. 

Open your Settings app and tap General > AirDrop. Then select Receiving off.

Setting AirDrop to "Receiving off"

11. Wear headphones

Once you're all set up to work, make sure you put headphones in. Turn on some music you've downloaded to your computer, or activate the white noise function. You could even spring for noise-canceling headphones for some extra oomph.

That'll help drown out all the ambient plane noise, whether it's screaming children, voices that carry inexplicably well, or someone who's decided it's socially acceptable to watch videos on their phone without headphones in.

Plus, if you end up with a chatty seatmate, it's a gentle signal that you're not interested in small talk.

12. Be considerate, please

We've all seen it before: some self-centered business person taking a call too loudly, complaining about noise in a public place, or just generally acting like their work is more important than anyone else's comfort. Everyone hates that person, so don't be them. Don't encroach on other people's physical space, be mindful of your volume while talking or typing, and please, please, please use headphones if you need to watch a Loom or listen to a voice memo. 

If you're a really frequent flyer or are sitting in economy but want to hang your business suit in the first class closet, it's also nice to bring a gift for the cabin crew. Starbucks gift cards are a perennial favorite since the global franchise has locations at just about every major airport, but small tokens like chocolate truffles or mini hand sanitizer bottles are also a good option. 

Working on a plane: FAQs

Does Wi-Fi work on airplane mode?

Wi-Fi absolutely works on airplane mode. If you're using a tablet or another device with cell service to get work done on the plane, you should always keep it in airplane mode. One thing to note: sometimes, when you switch to airplane mode, it'll turn off your Wi-Fi. You'll need to go into your settings and turn it back on.

Do Bluetooth headphones work on a plane?

Also yes! Airpods work on a plane (as do other wireless earbuds). Same as with Wi-Fi, when you move to airplane mode, it might turn your Bluetooth connection off, so you'll just need to turn it back on. 

Will Spotify work on a plane?

Honestly, probably not. Maybe if you're in business class on Emirates, but most plane Wi-Fi won't support streaming music (even if it claims to). Sometimes you can pay more for a better connection, but in my experience, it can be spotty. If you want to jam to your playlist while working on the plane, download the music ahead of time.

Don't stress about it—work is for the ground

Working on a plane is like working anywhere else: you have to find what works for you. Give it your best shot, but don't sweat it if it's not the most productive environment—unless you're in a super important C-suite role, your work can probably wait. If you're really concerned about meeting a deadline, try making use of a lounge before your flight. That way, your only in-flight agenda can be a nice long nap. 

Related reading:

  • The best AI scheduling assistants

  • How to take vacation as a freelancer

  • 5 things to do before going out of office

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