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Nightmare on the 'nerd bird' flight

Roger Kay has advice for high-tech execs who like to yak at 30,000 feet: Shhhh! There's a good chance someone's listening.

High-tech executives spend a lot of time in the air, and airplanes are a great place to get work done and even have important, uninterrupted conferences. But watch out: They are also a place where your worst nightmare can unfold.

To wit: A senior technical manager from a semiconductor manufacturer was traveling between San Jose, Calif., and Austin, Texas, when he began to overhear a man sitting across the aisle talking to a woman in the seat in front of him. The listener's ears pricked up when he realized that the man mouthing off was working for a direct competitor and was jabbering freely about issues that he was facing in launching a new product.

If you're not sitting next to the person you need to talk to, save it for the ground.

At the end of an hour, the man listening quietly knew his competitor's price, the bugs in its chip, and who the product's first (and, more importantly, anchor) customer was.

As he got up to deplane, he was recognized by a woman who had been seated behind him. She said hello and asked him whether he was still with the same company. When he replied yes, the man across the aisle shot him a look. The unlucky guy knew that he had made a major mistake. But it was too late.

As soon as he was off the plane, the accidental spy called his salesman, giving him the details. His company not only won the business by undercutting the competitor's price and pointing out where the flaws in its product were, but because this customer was pivotal for winning more business, the other company was never able to launch its product properly, and within a year it had closed its doors. That anchor customer was supposed to be the reference for subsequent customers.

This scenario took place on what we in the industry call the "nerd bird," any direct flight between two locations infested with high-tech companies. Austin-San Jose is one of the most famous, but there are others: Seattle-San Jose, Boston-Austin, San Jose-Portland. In such a plane, more than half the passengers are likely to be in the industry. They are the salesmen, techies and executives who keep the whole business going as they dart from technology center to technology center.

What with airplanes being the only place where executives can get away from cell phones and e-mail--for at least a little while longer--the air is a perfect place to get work done. I myself use the Boston-San Jose direct flight quite often to write or work on presentations. I have, however, acquired a 3M privacy filter (Web price: $66) for my 15-inch notebook. These filters, which you clip on right over your notebook's LCD, allow only the person sitting directly in front of the screen to see the content. From the side, the viewer sees black. It's a lot of money for a sheet of plastic, but how much is your business worth?

So, work away, get a lot done, and have those conferences--but not with someone across the aisle or in the next seat up. If you're not sitting next to the person you need to talk to, save it for the ground. And if you're one of those loudmouths who like to broadcast his status by shouting into a cell phone on the runway or yammering away with your row-mates about what a big wheel you are, think again. The ship you sink could be your own.