How Much Airplane “Networking” Is Too Much?

Filed Under: ANA, Media

All Nippon Airways has an article that’s a paid advertisement on CNBC entitled “The 3-3-3 Challenge: How a frequent flyer networks from Asia to the U.S.” In general ANA’s approach to this “article” is smart, as a paid advertisement is much more interesting to read if it’s about an engaging topic rather than just about the airline. So they’re writing about networking planes, though I’m curious if you guys think the premise of it is taken a bit too far:

In-flight networking is a growing trend among the business set. How does traveling make it different from networking on terra firma? All Nippon Airways (ANA) invited Karl Chong – angel investor, co-founder of Groupon (Singapore) and a seasoned networker – to discern the differences.


My approach to speaking with seatmates

Let me start by saying that I’m generally pretty introverted, and am someone who will almost never initiate a conversation on a plane or in a lounge. It’s not necessarily that I’m opposed to having a conversation with someone, as I’ve had plenty of fascinating conversations with seatmates.

So why am I apprehensive about talking to seatmates on a plane?

  • I’m often really tired when traveling and just want to work or relax, so the fewer distractions I have, the better; given that I fly 400,000+ miles per year, I view planes as an extension of my “office.”
  • The bigger issue is that while sometimes you get a great seatmate who is interesting to talk to, sometimes you get a horrible person who just won’t shut up. Usually in life you could excuse yourself in such situations, but you can’t really do that on a plane. In the past I’ve sometimes tried to excuse myself and put on headphones, only to have someone poke me on the shoulder to continue to have a conversation. I’ve had seatmates who have been loud and drunk and gone on racist and homophobic tirades, so it’s pretty awkward when you’re sitting next to them and don’t really have an “out.”

Like I said, I’m not at all opposed to talking to people on planes, I just wish people more consistently got “signals,” like when someone is tired and really doesn’t want to talk.

Air-India-First-Class - 2

Networking opportunities on planes?

Let’s get back to this paid advertisement by ANA. The premise is that this investor is flying on a longhaul ANA flight, and is looking for all the possible opportunities he can to network. Perhaps the reason this rubs me the wrong way is because I think the basis of the challenge is a bit ridiculous, as he’s forced to network with people from three nationalities that work in three industries across three locations:

On this journey that took him from Asia to U.S. almost as quickly as a direct flight on account of a short transit in Tokyo, we tasked Karl to meet people from three nationalities, three industries, across three locations, and to share his observations on what we’ve come to call the 3-3-3 Challenge.

For example, before landing he commented on how it looked like his seatmate had a great sleep as a way of starting a conversation:

He was sound asleep most of the flight, no surprise considering that the business class seats fully recline to become a flat bed. It was only when we were descending that he was finally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I jumped at the opportunity to small talk. I casually remarked that he looked like he had a great sleep. That kick started a pleasant chat, and I quickly discovered he was a Greek commodities trader, traveling to Japan to see clients.

When immigration forms were handed out, he asked to borrow his seatmate’s pen, so that he could start a conversation with him:

On the New York flight, I asked to borrow a pen from the passenger seated across the aisle. By the time I returned the pen, I was well on my way to finding out that this passenger is an independent trader from Toronto and living in New York. We even had a good talk about trading strategies and schools in the Big Apple (a mutual topic because we’re both parents).

He was happy when someone sat down right next to him in a mostly empty lounge, since it was an opportunity for him to strike up a conversation:

I stepped into the ANA Lounge at Haneda Airport just after 6 a.m. The lounge was relatively quiet at this time of day, so I was lucky that a fellow traveler decided to take the seat right next to me. The relaxing mood played to my advantage and I struck up a conversation with the man. He didn’t seem too keen on the small talk at first, but opened up once I shifted the topic to business. With some people, this is key: they’d rather talk shop than about their personal lives. He ended the conversation with an invitation to re-connect on business matters, post our flights.

Japan-Airlines-Lounge-Tokyo-Haneda - 14

Bottom line

I’m curious where you guys stand on “networking” while traveling. Like I said, I’m not trying to be the grinch here, but I’m an introvert, and on top of that am usually trying to work at airports and on planes. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with people on planes and at airports, though never with an agenda. Sometimes conversations start naturally and mutually, though I don’t consider that to describe any of the above scenarios.

My main frustration is when people don’t apply logic to situations. A countless number of times I’ve had chatty seatmates who didn’t get that me putting on headphones or giving short responses meant I was tired and not interested in talking. It goes both ways, in my opinion.

Where do you stand on “networking” when flying — are you the one to strike up conversations, or how do you approach small talk?

(Tip of the hat to LoyaltyLobby)

  1. I am with you Lucky, I have had some great conversations and met some amazing people but it has definitely been the exception rather than the norm.

  2. Lucky how did you meet your Bf? Were you setup? Introverted people are SOL in the dating world.

    Anyway the lounge on a380 or 787 is a good place to network. No where else.

  3. Comes down to personality type and tiredness. For the introverted, these conversations aren’t as appealing as for the extroverted. Me, I like convos with new people and I tend to start them. Now in my 50s, I’m very attuned to “signals” from people who don’t want the chat. But as Lucky admits, he generally doesn’t “want” the chat, but sometimes is happy it happened, after the fact. He wouldn’t seek out the contact (introverted) but he clearly doesn’t regret all the “unwelcome” convos he’s had.

    I’ll make a deal with all the introverts I’m gonna molest: gimme a few minutes benefit of the doubt and I’ll be responsive to your STFU signals after those few minutes.

    Happy (and tranquil) travels!

  4. If you ever use KLM’s check in you can even add your linkedin profile to let people see where your sitting. Sometime (like on the way to a large conference) If find it useful. To me a little networking or just a conversation with a stranger can be a real interesting thing. I once set beside a mercenary (in full desert gear) who was returning from an assignment in a desert somewhere, and I have to say while I am not in favor of his politics I found his view very interesting.

    Another time I sat next to a guy who ended up becoming a customer.

    A couple times at the Emirates bar I found myself in some very interesting conversations also.

    I think the important thing is to remember to respect their wishes, and I might start with a small hello, where you headed, if they are kinda short with the response I leave it alone. Everyone needs to remember that it is a two way street.

    Unfortunately, I have also sat next to those people who I had to end up saying sorry but I need to get some work done, or I need to take a nap etc. as they wouldn’t shut up.

    For example I once sat next to an old lady who I politely said “Hello, how are you today” her curt response was “I don’t want to talk to anyone” and I didn’t say another word to her.

    I think if you want to engage in conversation great, if you choose not too that is OK as well. Maybe try to be a bit nice about it though.

  5. My father always shares how when he was younger, his employer would require him to fly business class (he was an attorney in a large NYC law firm). The idea was that sitting in business/first class would allow him a greater opportunity to meet potential clients on the flight as opposed to sitting in coach. This policy continued through the early 90s.

    These days, I dont mind having a conversation with my seat mate. I’ve met some nice, fun people along the way and they’ve helped the flight go by more quickly. I’ve had an equal number of people who I didn’t want to talk to but wouldn’t shut up. Occassionally they were drunk and annoying but usually its someone who just didnt stop talking (about topics I have no interest in).

    A recent PHX->JFK flight I was sitting next to an older man who just wouldnt stop talking about the house he was building out there. After about 40 minutes I flat out told him i needed to go to sleep, he got the hint but the second i’d open my eyes or take my headphones off he would start up again.

  6. The whole “He didn’t seem to keen on the small talk at first…” should be a tip off.

    I’m a talker. I love striking up conversations with random strangers wherever I go. But even I have learned to read cues about who is interested in a chat and who wants me to shove off.

    On a plane, I wait a bit to test the waters with a seat mate. I don’t want to be stuck talking to someone horrible for the next 14 hours, so I try to set a light tone at first, and always have an “out” like a book or earphones.

  7. The only networking I do on trips is striding off the plane and onto the nearest basketball court to dunk on the locals. Boomshakalaka!

  8. I’m the same way as many above. I’m a talker but I’ve picked up some social skills over the years and can take a hint. If someone has headphones in or closes their eyes I don’t even bother saying hi. Usually I’ll start with something small like “heading home or traveling?” Depending on the response you know if someone wants to chat or not.

  9. I always greet my seat mates upon boarding if it happens to be side-by-side layout (e.g. QR 773 middle J seats). On night flights, I am usually off to the routine of head phone on, quick meal, and couple glasses of wine, then off to sleep (or a movie before sleeping). I enjoy a pleasant conversation, and that usually occurs around top of descent when everyone is generally relaxed/bored. That may carry on to landing if we come across a topic of interest to both parties, and on occasion we may exchange contact info. In general, I prefer networking that is organic rather than someone that appears to be creepily trying too hard or practicing nlp techniques 🙂

    I have made a couple interesting and lasting friends from my plane travels, but nothing that has evolved into any million dollar business deals (yet). Maybe I am not that good at plane networking 🙂

  10. Talker. Love the old school civilised convos. Some of the most interesting convos happen when we are stuck in fancy metal boxes for a few hours. That’s why I love old configurations on planes w/ reclining seats rather than flat beds for short hauls.. but I never ever talk to phantom of the opera neighbours who put on hydration masks

  11. The general vibe I give off (mostly unintentionally) is “please don’t talk to me.” Therefore, pretty much the only strangers who initiate conversation with me are the ones who are completely incapable of receiving social cues. That said, I can recall two instances where I spent a significant amount of time talking to a seat mate — one of them even resulted in a date!

  12. I get so bored flying when no one talks. Now that everyone has IFE screens it’s even harder now to start up a conversation. I enjoy meeting my fellow travelers and have had great and memorable conversations. I do look for social cues. If the pull their headphones out, I will disengage. Solo traveling can be so isolating that I enjoy conversation so much more.

  13. Hi Lucky,

    I am an introvert too. I do not feel to talking to total strangers on a flight. I want my peace. I certain cases, interesting talks can take place, but its mostly small talk and mutual courtesy, but nothing more. I think, finding the right business contact and new lifetime buddy in a seat next to one’s is minimal. It can happen, but I would not expect this.
    A better opportunity to meet people and to keep in touch with them are in the lounges on the ME3. There, depending on the people in the lounge, interesting contacts can be made. I have made a few and we have kept in touch. But again, do not expect to find your next soulmate, lifetime buddy, lover or future top business partner there.

  14. Definitely not interested in “networking” while flying. As someone who has a unique job, I always end up having to answer way too many questions that I find intrusive. For me the best flight is the one that looks like it didn’t happen because it went by so fast.

  15. I mold easily into routines on flights. If flying in Y or domestic F, I normally chat up my seat mate at the start of the flight but after takeoff, my laptop comes out and earphones go on and that works for me. In J, I am most always in a window seat alone so it’s a non issue. I don’t set out to network in transit but I tend to socialize in lounges and terminals a bit more than on flights. A conversation with a man at baggage claim in PHL resulted in a lucrative contract for my business over the past six years not to mention all the other clients that have been acquired from that one contact.
    Constant chat is annoying but not nearly as bad as drunks, sick and/or bad hygiene seat mates.

  16. Long-haul flying is strictly “me” time. For several hours I get to stretch-out and be alone with my book and bloody mary(s). I will quickly thwart any attempts made at unnecessary chit-chat by a cabinmate.

    Years ago I had a persistent seatmate on a BA flight from LHR to IAD. He was an outgoing, elderly gentleman from the Southern US. We were seated in Club World’s dreaded center section; the guy was practically sitting in my lap so I was already annoyed. He was merrily chatting away–oblivious to my Garbo-like “I want to be alone” facial expressions–until he became fascinated by my reading material: Eric Ives’ biography of Anne Boleyn. He somehow morphed the subject of Henry VIII’s court into a good-natured tirade on the Lyndon Johnson administration. I gave up and conceded defeat by half heartedly muttering my view that LBJ was a fascinating American figure. His response: “Son, you and I are about to become the best of friends.” Turns out my seatmate had worked in LBJ’s White House. For the next few hours he and I had a truly awesome conversation, highlighted by him repeatedly pushing the call button to request more whiskey from a very irritated flight attendant.

    That was a really good flight.

    I still hate chatty cabinmates.

  17. If I ever find myself seated next to Ben on a flight, and now that he’s flying more J class routes the odds are that much greater, first thing I’ll do is poke him on the shoulder :-0

  18. I too am an introvert. My personal definition of luxury and what I am willing to pay for or organize is to have the least amount of human contact possible while traveling, so it’s mostly premium cabin, pre-check, and lounges. It is not that I don’t like people but to me it already feels like I am losing so much privacy just by being in such close proximity to so many people that I try to protect the little personal space that I have. I think extroverts have a really hard time understanding introverts as it is just so foreign to their DNA. An excellent book for understanding introverts is “Quiet”. I sent it to my very extroverted sister so she could understand me and a couple of her new step-kids.

  19. With that said, ANA failed to recognize that premium cabins are paid for, among all, privacy. Privacy by having more space, negligible noise intrusion etc.

  20. The only person I generally speak with when flying up front is the flight attendant. The only times I encounter chatty people are back in Y; and usually, on all-Y airlines like Southwest and AirAsia.

  21. It’s all about reading social cues. There’s nothing wrong with networking if it seems like the person next to you would be amenable to talking, but like there is nothing worse than someone who can’t take a hint and just won’t shut up when you are trying to relax/work/sleep/etc. Believe me, no good is going to come from trying to “network” with someone who clearly isn’t in the mood for it.

  22. What utter nonsense.

    Anyone who has flown on ANA international J knows that causal conversations are all but impossible between seats because of the staggered J seats layout (which is why I like to fly them).

    Experts, shmexperts…

  23. It really depends on my mood and how tired I am. If I’m in a good mood and not tired, I tend to chat with my seat mates or go and hang out in the galley. Other times, I’m more likely to be unresponsive to any attempts at chatting.

    I’ve met an ex girlfriend in a plane and I’ve once been invited by a Japanese seat mate to stay a couple of days at her house (I was backpacking at the time so it was a godsend for me), so I have to say that I’ve had good experience chatting with people but mostly when I was in Y class instead of J class (people are more bored, seats are less comfortable and so it’s just a better environment for chatting :)) …

    Lucky, how often do you meet readers in planes? Shouldn’t be that uncommon no?

  24. This is why I love 1-2-1 seating. No one next to me to talk to.

    I was the only business/first class pax on a Garuda flight between Bali and Yogyakarta a couple of years ago. The purser decided that I needed some one to talk to and he proceeded to try to talk to me about religion for a good while. I found this rather offensive, frankly. Eventually he did leave me alone, but it seemed like forever. It was hard to be polite.

  25. I am glad QR flights I normally take are either 787 or 350and almost always snag seat 1K or 1A
    while i have had engaging conversations with FAs most of whom seem well educated, most of the time I am not even aware who else is flying!
    i am not an introvert but i enjoy my space that includes silence.
    since i am an academic rather than a businessman, networking up in the air or on the ground does not have an impact and i dont particularly like the word networking since it sounds selfish

  26. sooo, as my name shows I’m not a big chatterbox with anyone, much less strangers. If someone chit chats, I can get through it, find a natural break point and use physical cues to disengage. However I have that face that says ‘tell me your life story’. When the person refbuffs my cues then I figure I can suffer or I can try to have fun wtih it. And by fun with it, I mean at their expense. I tend to make up stuff, nothing too outrageous but just enough to be just at the edge of believable. Often just to try to make them feel insecure or finding their own way out of the conversation. And I can really sell it so it’s a ton of fun to give it right back to the person. An example: I was late to a connection, barely made it, flopped into my seat, wound up from the anxiety of almost missing the flight home (last one for the night). My seatmate wouldn’t have known what my day was like, that I was running on almost no sleep, but he should have known to just let me settle in. Nope, he immediately talked on and on about his job and how I should build my career (I was in a suit) and wouldn’t stop for almost 30 minutes. And his advice was moronic. I think because I look young he treated me like an idiot. Also as a woman it’s a given some self anointed hot shot wants to prove how amazing he is while not directly hitting on you. I was pissed. I listened oh so intently and then launched into how I made SVP in 2 years (not true) and went into believable detail about different experiences that maybe could have been true if it weren’t me and being a mid level peon. Watching his face change from SO full of himself bestowing his grandiose knowledge to being schooled by someone he considered inferior was fun. He should have picked up on the cues. He didn’t. He got the consequences. 😉

  27. OH – another fun one. If someone is being offensive, or approaching potentially dangerous territory (religion/politics) it’s awesome to let out a huge open mouthed loud yawn right at them when they are talking. And I mean don’t try to cover it up until maybe at the very end, just let it fly. It’s been 100% flawless for me to get them to stop right then and there. I’m not a horrible person, but I don’t have an obligation to continue to be polite when I already gave a good go at that route.

    I always try to get the point across without saying shhhhhhhhhhhhh. And a yawn shows I don’t care but they can’t say that I said anything mean or rude. Passive aggressive? Sure. Effective without being aggressive? Yep.

  28. there’s a reason i strongly prefer 1-2-1 business class cabins! i do enough talking and networking on the ground already!

  29. Not all people who travel in premium cabins work in industries where networking is a thing. As for me, I’m an expat teacher in Hong Kong, one of the noisiest places on earth, and my job involves a lot of talking and giving. So when I travel (and I get great holidays, so that’s a lot ☺) work doesn’t exist, it’s all about me, and I enjoy the quiet a premium cabin affords. My husband and I barely talk to each other during the flight, why would I want to talk to a stranger? Unfortunately, my next trip I’m travelling solo and it’s 2-2-2 forward facing seats. Wish it was 1-2-1 reverse herringbone. Hoping my seat mates value silence and personal space as much as I do.

  30. I saw this article a few days ago and found it stupid; whoever handles content marketing at ANA -an individual or an agency- should be fired for such a stupidly uninteresting article that negates one of the main points of premium flying: privacy. They’ve now created the impression that ANA premium cabins are chatty places to strike up a conversation.

    And they profiled a guy who is terribly uninspiring and a wannabe influencer: from what I remember, he basically copied Groupon’s model in Singapore (it was called something else at the time when they launched it right when everyone was drinking the kool-aid on group deals) then that got brought by Groupon shortly thereafter. I also vaguely remember him being on an episode of House Hunters International with his annoying brother when they moved to Singapore to start their business. Kudos to him for seeing an opportunity and making a quick buck but he is nothing more than a wannabe entrepreneur whose success basically came from copying another business and then selling that to the business they copied.

    Now he’s trying to give people advice on how to be annoying in an a confined space. What an idiot.

    ANA: you’ve totally failed here.

  31. Getting acquired by groupon is a wannabe entrepreneur? That’s hustling at its finest. Sounds like someone got a can of jelly.

  32. I’m like you Lucky, generally introverted but open if someone kicks off the conversation and can also take the hint. I’ve had a couple of great chats (with LinkedIn requests a few hours after the flight) and then a couple of weird ones.

    The best has to be a woman who could not stop talking to me in P/E BA whilst we had our pre-departure drinks. She really did not get the hint .. and then an attendant said ‘Ma’am, where are you supposed to be sitting?’ and she sheepishly moved backwards into Economy. She had been trying to pretend like we were travelling together and bag a P/E seat. Luckily that has only happened the once!

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