Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

“Long Flights” – a somewhat serious business idea

I’m considering starting a new business venture. It’s called “Long Flight” and it’s based on my experiences writing on airplanes.

I’ve hit a point in my career where I organize my schedule to maximize the number of long flights I get to take. Sometimes this means accepting an invitation I might have otherwise ducked – i.e., coming to Australia for only five days on the ground, as I just did. Other times, it means scheduling flights that look insane on paper – Boston to Hong Kong the long way around, via Amsterdam – so I can get more writing time in. (Did that late last year, and finished my favorite chapter of this book in the process.)

Obviously, scheduling a long flight as a form of writing retreat is stupid in all sorts of ways. Unless someone else is paying you to travel, it’s crazy expensive. And even if someone’s paying you to fly to Adelaide for a few days, it’s got massive environmental impacts. So I’m thinking about a business that lets you stay on the ground, but rent a writing space that mimics the key features of a long plane flight.

No connectivity – I’ve been productive on long flights where I’ve had internet access, but it’s a very different form of productivity. Craig Newmark and I were invited to the same conference in South Korea some years back and sat side by side for 15 hours, answering email on the way from NYC to Seoul. I reached inbox zero, but I didn’t write anything I was proud of, as I kept getting distracted by incoming mail. And that was before Twitter.

“Long Flight” facilities will be located inside Faraday cages. Once you enter the facility, your phone will be cut off from GSM and CDMA networks, and Wifi won’t work. You’ll be encouraged to download and cache anything you’ll need to read ahead of time.

Fixed duration – I work well in libraries, but I tend to leave them after I’ve accomplished the main task I’d had on my to do list. One of the reason long flights are so productive is that you’re committed to staying in a space well beyond the time you need to accomplish a task. For me, that means I get a blogpost or chapter written, but I also catch up on papers I’ve needed to read.

“Long Flight” facilities will be bookable for durations of 6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 hours. We’ll refer to the duration by the names of cities – book an 8 hour session at our Boston facility and we’ll reference your stint as an “Istanbul”. You’ll be free to walk around the facility, pass other people’s compartments, access the rest rooms and snack counter, but your access key won’t let you leave the building until your session is up. (You’ll sign a waiver that prevents us from being charged with holding you against your will. And we’ll have an emergency protocol, so you can press a button and call emergency services. But if you abuse it to end your session early, we’ll ban you from the facility.)

Each pod will feature a screen that shows the progress of your flight to your “destination”. Since you’ll be ending up back in Boston, perhaps we’ll start in Istanbul and follow a great circle route back. The screen will helpfully inform you that it’s -52C outside, which should serve as an incentive to remain in the facility.

Visibility – I often work in coffee shops because I find that I focus better when other people can look over my shoulder. I’m less likely to watch a movie I’ve ripped to my laptop or flip through my photo collection if everyone around me can see that I’m procrastinating.

“Long Flight” will assign you a pod within a shared space. You’ll be able to see what your neighbors are doing, and they can see you. Conversation will be discouraged by a loud white noise machine that permeates the space, encouraging you to put on headphones and listen to whatever music you’ve brought with you.

Food and beverage – When I’m working in libraries, what ultimately breaks my concentration is the need to go out for lunch or dinner. While the snacks and meals provided on board planes aren’t always the tastiest, the ability to eat where you’re working is helpful, and being able to walk to the galley for another beverage can be a useful break in routine.

Your admission to “Long Flight” will include unlimited food and beverage from the galleys. The food and beverage won’t be very exciting – cheese sandwiches, salty snacks, and a soda fountain. I’m undecided on whether there might be a booze option – for an extra fee – for those who want to work sober, then have a drink or two and work more loosely.

Let me know if you have any other feature requests, or ideas for where we might locate these facilities. I’m thinking about locations that are accessible via public transport, but in lower rent neighborhoods, as no one will be leaving the facility anyway, and the windows will simply show a blue sky with clouds below you.

Franchise opportunities are available, cheap. :-)

20 Responses to ““Long Flights” – a somewhat serious business idea”

  1. Tom Igoe says:

    Love it.

    Hate the white noise idea though. White noise gives me headache. Don’t solve that with a technical solution. Use the library model: discourage talking through etiquette standards.

    Love the blue sky with clouds idea. Reminds me of James Turrell’s “meeting” room at PS1. Get him to design the space. You probably need a light room and a dark room, as people’s preferences differ.

    Not sure about the low-rent neighborhood idea. If you’re going to do that, find a way so that the traffic to and from benefits the neighborhood.

    Network access: this is tricky, as I sometimes use opportunities like this for writing network apps. But again, you can use the library model. If you need something from the internet, ask the librarian to get it for you. You don’t have access yourself. For logn flight coders, you can pre-define limited access if you want: access to a development server, or you can set up a local copy, but you can’t access distractions.

  2. it’s like a low-rent, short-term writer’s retreat. As this list shows, they usually site retreats in bucolic settings, http://creabunda.typepad.com/writersretreatguide/, so you can walk around and be inspired or refreshed. Maybe you can add a treadmill with an immersive display including a forest-bathing landscape so people can feel like they’re out in nature.

    Or a temporary Grotto. http://www.pobronson.com/do_writers_need_community.htm

  3. Jesse Krembs says:

    I believe Douglas Coupland had the same basic idea to describe very long hacking sessions in his novel “Microserfs”

  4. Dave Winer says:

    Even longer flights for smoking cessation.

  5. Vinny says:

    When’s the grand opening? ;)

  6. Jason Weaver says:

    Fantastic idea. Reminds me tangentially of Brian Eno’s proposals for a ‘quiet club’, where you go to fully engage with your mind rather than escape it.

  7. Matt says:

    Tell me you did not write this on your flight.

  8. Ethan says:

    Of course I wrote this on a long flight. When the hell else do I get time to write silly crap like this? But I wrote it after reading comments on my book and restructuring a draft for 10 hours… :-)

  9. Love it, but judging from what I see of others on flights, you are looking at an extremely small market. I think that I am usually the only one on the entire plane doing any serious reading/writing.

    Just tell me you would also include the pre-flight instructions given in dull monotone telling us how to buckle up a seat belt.

  10. Bob Marsh says:

    Interesting idea, but only acceptable if the pods are Business Class!

  11. Brad says:

    Like it all, except no airline seats … can we at least have seats that have some support and that don’t make my ass hurt after 5 minutes? Do that, and I’m in.

  12. Sarah Smith says:

    Here in Boston, you say? How soon how soon…now?

  13. Mark Yakich says:

    Hi Ethan,

    Great idea. Thought you might be interested in a corollary type website (one that gathers airplane writing) which I co-edit: airplanereading.org.

    Cheers, Mark

  14. I’m in for the forked version 2: Quiet Car. For me, train > flights for productivity.

  15. Emily Gertz says:

    Love this idea, Ethan. One key suggestion to offer customers is to leave at home other tasks that might encourage procrastination. I leave the knitting behind when hoping to catch up on reading or writing on a plane, or even the subway.

  16. Ric Vatner says:

    Your idea is very similar to one I heard many years ago at an Alec Mackenzie seminar on Time Management. In it he told us to make up a sign which says “Quiet Hour”

    When you put the sign up (or hang it on your door if you haven’t gone “Open Office” yet)no one is allowed to approach you, you set your phone to take messages and you do not leave your desk for the hour (no not even to pee). The upshot is One Hour of Uninterrupted work time during which you get as much done as you do for the rest of the day.

    It really works and when my daughter was having difficulty getting her Uni assignments done I introduced her to it as well and she was amazed at well it worked. I did fudge a bit in her case, I included no access to Facebook which didn’t exist when I attended the seminar.

    It may not the the kudos of a long haul flight but at least you get home in time for dinner. :-)

  17. Samuel Klein says:

    I am sitting in a very quiet, bucolic setting, ideal for reading and writing, and this post made me laugh out loud, echoing off the trees. I love it.

    You don’t need to make it difficult for people to leave; just discourage them from returning if they do – as not suited for them. A little social norm can go a long way.

  18. Dan Schultz says:

    As an alternative in the mean time: I recently moved to Providence, RI which means I commute via train every day for about 3.5 hours total. I’ve found this to be super productive!

    Living in a place that forces a long commute, so long as that commute is via public transit, will be a direct competitor to Long Flight!

  19. Steve Albertson says:

    This idea works for reading as well. Here in Seattle, a local weekly organizes “silent reading parties” at a local (posh) bar, and earlier this month, outdoors at a park. Show up and read quietly in the company of others doing likewise. Kind of like the library, but more focused, and with drinks. Although some people may bring Kindles or iPads, I don’t think other technology is encouraged.

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