Networking on Airplanes: Brilliant Opportunity or Worst Nightmare?

  • No, I don’t want to talk to you, because this airline just got Wi-Fi and I have an investor presentation to create.
  • No, I don’t want to talk to you, because it’s 6 am and I have a meeting right when we land; I’m trying to sleep.
  • No, I don’t want to talk to you, because you stink.

Any way you slice it, very few people board airplanes because they’re just as excited about the journey as the destination. They’re concerned about enduring hours of recycled air and cramped seats and trying to look semi-fresh when they land. Delta and LinkedIn, however, have decided to make lemonade out of some very bitter lemons with their new “innovation class.”

innovationclass2“Innovation class” will pair an industry authority or business professional with years of experience next to a fresh-faced up-and-comer. Don’t think of it as a seat assignment, think of it as a mentoring program. According to Business News Daily, the first pairing was James Patten, CEO of Patten Studio with Eric Migicovsky, CEO of Pebble.

At face value, I was skeptical. Not only could the pair not hit it off, but it would also be annoying to the other passengers trying to wittle away the hours without hearing multiple elevator pitches. Time summed up my feelings perfectly:

[It seems tailored to address] two key constituencies—a) business leaders, who can’t understand the lack of irritating interruptions in the one place in life where they can plausibly not respond to a text message or cell phone call, and b) everyone else, who have long lamented the distressing shortage of doe-eyed, brown-nosing would-be “innovators” loudly trying to impress important people sitting next to them.

However, I need to give credit where credit is due. Delta isn’t trying to turn the skies into a bustling networking event. Each mentor is chosen a few months in advance because they’re attending or speaking at a major event. Imagine traveling to Pubcon and sitting next to Matt Cutts on the plane. Unless he hides out in the bathroom or gets drunk off the beverage service, you have a captive mentor.

innovationclass

The mentors are hand-picked and the destinations are specifically chosen, making this more of a contest that targets businesses instead of an actual networking opportunity. It’s not too bad of an idea.

Airlines Have Tried to do Social Before

Back in 2012, KLM launched “Meet and Seat” where users could connect their social media accounts to their chosen seats to let others opt to sit next to them. This too, was meant to facilitate discussion and encourage pre-event networking.

By opting to expose your social presence – either via Facebook, Google+, or LinkedIn – you were essentially opting in to talk to whoever chose to sit next to you. Leaving your social presence blank proved that you wanted to be left alone. This way, no one was stuck next to a talker and people with similar interests could network. If multiple people were on their way to the same conference, they could get to know each other before they even landed in the host city. Also, if you already have friends on board, you could opt to sit next to them too.meetandseat

You could meet your next business partner, client, or mentor through this program, or you could spend five hours next to an incredibly boring person who you never want to see again – only to run into them multiple times at the conference you’re both flying to.

Even Still, Some Swear by Networking on Airplanes

While many business travelers want to use their travel time to sleep or read, some swear by networking in the air. Gayle Hallgren-Rezac and Camilla Cornell both offered some tips for making a connection when flying:

  • Say hello when your sit down, it’s harder to break the ice later if you don’t.
  • Even if you can see the other person’s business information on their iPad, ask what they do and what industry they’re in. Don’t let them know you were looking.
  • If the person next to you wants to sleep and wear headphones the whole time, respect their wishes. Consider striking up a conversation when the plane is landing.
  • Not every seat-mate needs to become a client. Talk to the person to get to know them, regardless of what they do. At the very least, you get an interesting conversation out of it.
  • Be nice to the flight attendants. Like wait-staff at restaurants, how you treat the flight attendants says a lot about who you are. Even if the flight is delayed and you’re at your wit’s end, treat them with respect.

For the most part, networking on an airplane is like networking on an elevator. Just because you have a captive audience doesn’t mean you need to gain a potential lead or new best friend each time you ride. Respect the wishes of others and both you and your new connection will bear the experience better.

About the author

Amanda Dodge