Networking on a Plane

Over the past two months I have been a guest speaker at events in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Europe and spent quite a few hours sitting on planes in the process of getting from one to the other. I always board a flight with the best intentions of using my time to constructively pore through a pile of work, although free drink, shiny packets of peanuts and the first series of Billions have been very successful at distracting me…

Being a business traveller means, more often than not, being a single traveller which means each journey becomes something of a lottery in respect to who’s nearby. Quite often a flight will come up trumps – an interaction with a fellow travelling companion leading to a business opportunity, a useful networking lead, or an interesting conversation at the very least.

Flying Business Class dramatically increases the odds of having a rewarding flight in the seat companion stakes, although this does depend on what business you are in. If you have found yourself sitting next to a high flying executive who heads up the European arm of one of the world’s leading customer service software companies, and just loves to tell you how underappreciated their industry sector really is, you will know what I mean…

Of course your odds of a rewarding in-flight networking experience begin to decline once booked on to a last minute hop across Europe with a budget carrier. That is unless you’re sharing Row 23 with another ‘slumming-it’ passenger (for example Kate Moss, who was removed from an Easyjet flight following a rant that was fuelled by either Vodka or a sandwich shortage, whichever Daily Mail report you choose to believe).

Nevertheless, some airlines have now cottoned onto the value of meaningful cabin liaisons. In 2014, Delta launched a scheme called ‘Innovation Class’ which aimed to match business travellers in its seating plan. KLM has also sought to capitalise on the urge to network, launching a Meet and Seat scheme that allows passengers to broadcast their seat number via social media in the hope of attracting a blue chip hook up.

Simple Tips for Networking On A Plane
I have, on occasion, been asked if business networking etiquette changes depending on the environment. For example, do different rules apply if you are 30,000 feet above the Atlantic?

Successful networking is an essential aspect of business development and being able to engage effectively face to face, communicate your message and read others’ responses is a core business skill. This does not change, regardless of whether your cutlery is well polished silver or plastic pulled from a packet that also contains a serviette and a sachet of all purpose creamer. So, any tips?

Number one: Be engaging. Treat them as a person and not as another notch on the contact pole. Unlike a lunchtime function, or a drinks reception, where you can politely make your excuses and move on once the conversation has run its course, you are both locked in to each other’s company for a considerable amount of time. To make the bond find some common ground – shared interests, travel experiences, movies watched… anything to break the monotony of wall-to-wall business talk which will soon begin to sound very hollow.

Number two: You are in for a long haul so recognise when to give your companion a bit of space. If you find yourself taking too many flights where your fellow passengers are prone to napping, take the hint! The best in-flight defence mechanism any of us have when we can’t escape is feigning sleep.

Number three: Should your companion fall asleep, don’t, under any circumstances, attempt to rouse them for another round of business talk. You won’t win any friends by waking them up, or tugging at their attention while they try to watch the small screen, headphones on. On the other hand, you will a) annoy them, b) become another anecdote about painful travelling experiences c) possibly have a glass of red wine ‘accidentally’ spilled in your lap…

Luan de Burgh

November 2016

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.