Close encounters of the flying kind

In the business world of flying, there's a chance your seatmate could be a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

5 min read
Robert Scoble, a technology executive, was on a flight from Northern California to Seattle when he found himself seated next to a vice president for Costco.

Scoble, who was then working at Microsoft, was intrigued by how Costco, the giant discount retailer, managed its tech inventory. He struck up a conversation, and by the time he landed had received a master class in big-box retailing.

"I've had more than my fair share of interesting encounters on planes," said Scoble, now a vice president of the start-up PodTech.net and author of a blogging guide, who flies at least once a week on business.

In recent years he's sat next to an Amazon.com executive and an executive of a computer company who also happened to be a director of the airline he was flying. A flight, he said, "is a great place to pick up ideas and to spot trends, especially in technology."

Scoble welcomes having the seat next to him on a flight occupied. For such extroverts, connecting with seatmates is a better way to use downtime than hunching over their laptops.

Some may even find new clients: Howard R. Elisofon, a New York lawyer, said he often exchanged business cards with his seatmates, especially if he was flying in business class or first class. More than once, he said, he has heard from someone he met on a plane who later needed a lawyer in New York.

"When you are thrown together in a tight space, somehow there is this sense of camaraderie," he said.

When it comes to socializing with your seatmates, however, where you sit makes a difference. "You definitely have a better chance of meeting your peers up front," Elisofon said. "On the other hand, you're always taking a risk talking business on a plane, no matter where you're sitting."

There are risks in striking up a conversation aloft. "You could have to listen to six hours of someone talking about their gum surgery," said Jeanne Martinet, author of "The Art of Mingling" and five other books about social interactions and etiquette.

To avoid being trapped, she said, "have your escape techniques ready," because cutting off contact can be awkward in a cramped cabin at 30,000 feet. Reliable exit strategies include putting on headphones, working on a laptop or simply feigning sleep.

A flight "is a great place to pick up ideas and to spot trends, especially in technology."
--Robert Scoble, VP, PodTech.net

On the other hand, she said, "the person sitting next to you could be a treasure, either for your business, or personally." She added: "Not all mingling is done at parties. It's like standing next to someone on a line. You're there anyway; why not see where it goes?"

Many frequent business fliers know that the odds of finding a compatible seatmate also vary according to route. An airplane cabin "represents the confluence of private industry and public space," and certain "power flights" offer the best mix of the two, said Joe Brancatelli, a travel columnist who runs the JoeSentMe.biz site.

Chief among them are flights connecting Silicon Valley with other high-tech centers, the "Nerd Bird" markets with a high laptop-to-person ratio.

While the tech industry downturn and 9/11 terror attacks may have put a damper on this subculture a few years ago, there are signs it is reviving: American Airlines recently said it would add capacity to its thrice-daily service between Austin, Tex., and San Jose, Calif., by replacing its 136-seat MD-80s with 188-seat 757s. Other flights between San Jose and Seattle, Boston and Washington qualify for the "nerd" moniker, said an American Airlines spokesman, Tim Smith.

Another power venue is the hourly shuttle service operated by Delta and USAirways between New York City and Boston and Washington, where spotting a recognizable political celebrity is a popular pastime.

Business-class cabins on transcontinental flights are also good places to meet people in the entertainment business.

"When you are bypassing a hub and going point-to-point, you could end up with a high degree of people in a particular industry," Smith said.

One example is American's nonstop service between Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and London, which he said was popular among those who work for pharmaceutical companies and their counterparts in Britain.

For some fliers, a bigger concern than being stuck with a bore is that you may inadvertently reveal something to a competitor. While laptop security has gotten more attention lately, loose lips can do just as much damage to your business, said Brancatelli, who advised sticking with general topics when initiating contact.

His favorite opener is the sorry state of air travel these days, a topic that inspires near-unanimity among fliers. "'Isn't this the worst flight ever?' is to the business traveler the equivalent of saying 'What's your sign?' in a bar," Brancatelli said.

Other basic etiquette tips for in-flight networking include speaking softly, avoiding questions of a personal nature and reading the person's body language. "If someone's sending out signals, like yawning in your face, that's a good time to open your book," Martinet said.

Most airlines leave social behavior to their customers, although JetBlue Airways for a time had a seatback etiquette card advising fliers "how to make the world a better place...one flight at a time." Among the suggestions: introduce yourself to your seatmate, excuse yourself politely when getting out of your seat, and avoid offending neighbors with smelly food or feet.

But some situations defy easy solutions. One flier found himself seated across the aisle on the New York-Washington shuttle from the boss who had just fired him. Fortunately, he spotted an empty seat in another row and was able to avoid further humiliation. Another nightmare scenario is "finding that you're sitting up in first class and your boss is back in coach," Brancatelli said.

Elisofon said that one of his more memorable encounters came right after he was married and was traveling with his wife to Mexico.

They unexpectedly were seated in different rows in first class. He was paired with a stunning fashion model, who let on that she was on her way to film a part in the next James Bond movie. Said Elisofon, "Here I am sitting with the next James Bond girl, and I had to act like I couldn't care less!"