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How to work on an airplane when you can't use your laptop

The Trump administration's proposed ban would force tablets into checked luggage, too. But believe it or not, productivity is still possible.

The year 1987 saw a major innovation in the airline industry: digital controls. Shown here during a February 22, 1987 test flight, this Airbus A320 airliner was the first to fly using computer-driven fly-by-wire controls.The new digital control system offered huge safety benefits, preventing pilots from making maneuvers that would harm the plane's structural integrity.
Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images

If you're freaking out about the proposed laptop ban on international flights, well, I don't blame you -- especially considering that the ban includes tablets, which would be the logical go-to alternative.

Fortunately, nothing is set in stone, so freaking out won't do you any good. However, you may want to start considering your options should the ban go into effect. Although your productivity may well take a hit if you're deprived of your laptop, there are still ways to get work done on a flight.

Put your phone in the driver's seat


Is it as good as a laptop? No. Can it fill in when you need to brain-dump? Definitely.


The proposed ban covers "anything larger than a smartphone," so that leaves you with -- you guessed it -- your smartphone. You're already using it for email, social media, appointment scheduling and the like, so now you just need to bring a keyboard into the mix.

Granted, a 5- or even 6-inch screen will feel mighty cramped, especially if you're working with documents. But if you're composing a lengthy email or just doing a brain-dump into a word processor, trust me when I say it's better than nothing.

And it won't feel quite so cramped if you bring along a laptop-size Bluetooth keyboard. The Logitech K480, for example, was designed expressly with phones and tablets in mind (though it can also work with desktops), with an integrated cradle that props up your device at a proper viewing angle. It has a $49.99 list price but routinely sells online for less. I also recommend searching Amazon and other stores for "portable Bluetooth keyboard," as you'll find lots of options -- including fold-up models that are easier to tote.

Pick up a pen -- a smart pen


The Neo N2 smartpen, shown here with the Livescribe 3 and Equil Smartpen 2. Use one of these to "outsmart" the laptop ban and capture notes electronically.

Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

You remember pens, right? Those things that produce ink on paper? Turns out they're still allowed on flights, so it will still be possible to take notes, scribble ideas and so on.

In fact, with the right kind of pen, those notes can be transcribed into digital form. Products like the Equil SmartPen 2, IrisNotes 3 Air, Livescribe 3 and Neo Smartpen N2 will capture your handwritten notes and transfer them to your phone, tablet or -- once you land -- laptop.

Different models tackle this differently. Some force you to use special paper; others rely on a sensor you clip to the top of your writing pad, cocktail napkin or whatever. Most of them are priced in the $150 range.

Don't want to spend extra money? Any pen can be made "smart" when you use your phone to scan whatever you've written on paper. As long as your notes are legible, document-capture apps like Adobe Scan and Evernote Scannable will apply OCR, thus allowing you to copy the text into your word processor.

Take the opportunity to unplug

Here's something from the glass-half-full school of thought: Be glad you can't use your laptop. Without the distraction of that screen, you can do some creative or strategic thinking -- the kind that flows best when you're unplugged and relaxed.

And speaking of relaxing, flights are great for meditation. Countless studies have shown considerable benefits to practicing this daily, and there's no better time than when you're sitting on a flight. Find an app you like (I'm a fan of Buddhify and Calm), pack good noise-canceling earphones and give your brain a much-needed respite.

Likewise, this is the perfect time to settle into a good book. If you're not into fiction, read something about better ways to conduct business. That's a kind of productivity, too! And don't forget music: When was the last time you sat and really listened to your favorite playlist, rather than just having it on in the background? Tune into your tunes and let your brain unwind. (Just make sure you've downloaded songs for offline listening, as the in-flight Wi-Fi might be insufficient for streaming them.)

What ideas do you have for staying productive when your laptop is stowed in your suitcase?