The Two Reasons Why I Stopped Using Wi-Fi Internet on Airplanes

And it’s not about data security

Illustration of an airplane flying over the United States while transmitting over wi-fi
Illustration by Chris Busse. AI was used to generate original source images used in final composition.

Reason 1: Post-Pandemic “100% remote work” is different than pre-pandemic “working remotely while traveling”

I’ve never been a “frequent flyer” in the sense that I was ever one of those people that put on a suit, took the Monday 7am flight from Richmond to New York, and came back Thursday. Nor have I had to be regularly “on the road” flying for work. However, the nature of my work often requires me to fly in ad-hoc — conferences, pitches, one-off client visits, channel partner meetings and events — as well as spans of time where I am flying somewhat regularly for a client or internal company operations.

At a previous job, I had a client with locations in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and Manhattan. This often meant taking that 7am flight to NYC or Newark, staying a few days (occasionally a few hours) and flying back home after many long meetings and late dinners.

That job required a lot of presentation building with detailed charts and analytics used to suggest a number of potential forward paths of action — generally creative marketing campaigns that were highly data-driven and designed to capture more data; rinse, repeat. Although we  were structured as a consulting company, the client viewed us like they viewed their advertising and other creative agencies. This meant there was no real down time between meetings and the next pitch, presentation, or report deck — all of which required non-stop team collaboration and client feedback on drafts to make sure we were telling the right story.

At that time I made use of every available moment of Internet connectivity that I could beg, borrow, or steal. It also meant that I was always on. I knew where all of the hidden power outlets were at the airports I frequented.

My next job was at a large bank. I flew less in that role, but when I did it was usually cross-country. Had I stayed there, it would have probably increased in frequency due to “the center of gravity of the program moving to the San Francisco office.”

In my current job I had one of those client-driven time spans where I was flying frequently but not in a regular pattern — this time to Philadelphia. Often I’d be on a call at my office in Richmond one day, and the logical next action would be for my to be in Philly for a 9am follow up meeting the next day. Whiteboards and Post-It notes FTW. During that arc I would sometimes use in-flight Wi-Fi if I really needed it, but often I was flying a very short flight so the window of connectivity was small.

Now that I’m flying again with increasing frequency post-pandemic, I have chosen to intentionally not use in-flight wi-fi. It is tempting to get online and stay on top of Slack and email when I’m traveling during the work day. I sometimes have to fight that urge if I feel that there’s a pressing matter to discuss, but in our 100% remote work environment (with a small hybrid contingent that I’m a part of), ad-hoc Zoom meetings and hopping on quick calls are also necessary to work through things. In fact, I have a keyboard macro set where typing “zzzz” automatically expands to “/zoom meeting chat” so that in Slack I can instantly create a new Zoom meeting named “chat.” (I created this before Slack released the Huddle feature, and I know that some people in the company are using that too. That is no different though for purposes of this dynamic.)

Therein lies the problem: in-flight Wi-Fi is good for text-based communications like chat, email, and SMS, but it is not suited for voice nor video, at all. In fact, some airlines specifically announce “no video conferencing” when talking about the Wi-Fi service on the PA. It makes sense too, and not just for work confidentially purposes — bandwidth is limited and it could be very disturbing to your fellow travellers.

This means that when flying I’m limited to a subset of the communication channels and tools that are standard in our 100% remote work environment. Add to that the fact that the channels that can’t be used are the ones most suited for “escalation” of an issue when it’s too complex or quick-moving to type out in chat, or requires collaborative review of something on a screen share.

Therefore, trying to work online while flying means there’s a high chance of getting frustrated by those limitations. Air travel in general can be a frustrating experience, so now there’s a higher chance of “showing up to work” in a mood. The underlying dynamic there can quickly become a viscous self-perpetuating cycle: You’re frustrated, you get online and get involved in something that really needs some videoconferencing time, but you can’t, so you can’t really get it resolved how you’d like, now you’re more frustrated and maybe have frustrated others, then you jump to the next thread, entering it feeling frustrated…

Choosing to not go online while in the air sets a boundary that prevents all that feeling of frustration. More importantly, it means that you have a boundary between you and your coworkers rather than getting online and trying to work with potentially decreased effectiveness — something that can spread that frustration like a virus to your team, or lead to sub-optimal assessment of an issue and assignment of next actions.

Reason 2: Perhaps there is a better use of your time while in the air

In the first part above, note that I never said I didn’t work. In fact, I’ve found that being forced to sit, offline, for two or more hours can be incredibly productive. Before I travel, I make a to do list of things I can do offline. This list is usually some combination of writing, reading, and creative outputs. 

This post itself was drafted on an early morning RIC-MIA flight, and on my next flight from MIA to SJO I plan to build a spreadsheet that summarizes the feedback across multiple internal candidates for a leadership position, complete with coaching plans for each person independent of whether they’re going to get the new job or not. This will help get them ready for a role like it when the next one comes along, and give us an idea what we’re committing to for the person who is selected.

The latter example is an incredibly valuable exercise that should pay dividends for the next year or two, and hopefully have a positive impact on several people’s careers. It’s the kind of thing that does not require Internet, and is best done in a distraction-free environment — something that’s hard for me to find during normal working hours.

Thinking about it a bit more philosophicaly, airplanes are a liminal space. The concept of a liminal space is an important one when it comes to personal energy management.

When you’re on an airplane, you’re neither here nor there. You’re somewhere in between.

This means you have a time where you don’t need to be present any place other than your seat. 

That in turn means you can be fully present with yourself.

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