How to Plan a Meeting on an Airplane

Meetings can take place anywhere, anytime, even in flight. While meeting on an airplane may not be a conventional meeting environment, it’s just one of many meeting venues that you may find yourself working with in the future. To help you prepare, here’s a scenario that takes you through the steps of planning a meeting on an airplane.

Here’s your assignment: You are the administrative assistant to the Secretary of Education. Your boss and three top staff members are making a three-day trip to western states from Washington, D.C. You are to book the plane reservations to accommodate working meetings and discussion among the four while they are in flight. The secretary also has individual work to do alone.

So, how should you arrange the seating in order to optimize the meeting? 

Here are some options to choose from (the secretary’s seat is in Bold letters):

A. Four adjoining seats in the same row across, e.g. 14 C, D, E, F
B. Four aisle seats in two consecutive rows, e.g. 14 C& D, and 15 C & D
C. Three adjoining seats in one row for staff with Secretary ahead, e.g. 14 C, and 15 C,D,E
D. Put the Secretary in first class with three across on one side, e.g. 3 C, and 14 C,D,E
E. None of the above. They can all work alone and then talk in the limo and over meals.

If you choose “E,” you are wasting all the time you may have during transit, unless each individual has work to do.

If you choose “D,” it may mean that discussion is stymied while the drink cart is in the aisle.

If you choose “C,” that puts the secretary in the position of discomfort, having to turn around in order to discuss things with his staff members. Staff, meanwhile, may be able to place papers and laptops on adjoining tray tables, but the aisle seated staffer is blocked from seeing the window seated staffer, unless one or both lean forward and turn the 90 degrees to face each other. This is the same configuration as trying to use a sofa for a meeting.

If you choose “A,” that puts the secretary across the aisle to do his own work, leaving consultation time with staffers each twisting about 70-90 degrees  to the left, with seats E and F leaning forward.

If you choose “B,” that allows for across-the-aisle discussion that would only be interrupted momentarily by the drink cart. The staffers in the front row can turn toward each other, stand in the aisle as needed, or turn to the aisle seats behind them and confer with each other. You give the lower status staffers in seats 14 C & D the task of twisting or turning around to the secretary in 15 C. Meanwhile, the secretary can do his own work and be drawn into the conversation only as needed. However, each has a visual of the other without being blocked from sight. And each can talk directly to the other three with minimal effort.
Perhaps there are additional considerations. 

The seating arrangement in scenario “B” was the actual configuration arranged for Arne Duncan and his top staff when I occupied 15 E next to his communications director. And, from my seat I was able to converse easily with the secretary, but with great difficulty with the person in 14 D, unless he stood.

The next time you are on a plane, pay attention to how poorly this straight across seating serves you in communicating with people in your row beyond those immediately next to you. That is your own personal experience of how straight rows limit face-to-face meetings. So, while you are travelling across the country to run or attend a meeting, why would you settle for straight rows in a non-dedicated space?

Airplane seats are “dedicated”, fixed, screwed to the floor. Meeting facilities generally do have moveable seating, configurable space to optimize the meeting. And dedicated seating is typically superior to the daily setup. Most dedicated seating will demonstrate that when they are going to fix the seating in one position, they curve the seating so that each chair is pretty much angled to face the presentation directly. This way, someone recognizes the value of direct sight lines. That message has yet to reach most hotel properties and meeting facilities. Conference centers tend more to emphasize mobility, flexibility, and comfort.

So, set up your next meeting by facing each chair toward the presentation. Then, when they become seats - i.e. when someone sits in them - they will contribute to the learning environment.
Paul O. Radde, Ph.D., has a black belt in room design.  SEATING MATTERS: State of the Art Seating Arrangements with 71 illustrations is available at Dr. Radde keynotes and conducts seminars on “Developing a Professional Presence,” “Influencing Decision Makers,” and “Thrival – Delight in the Richest Experience of Your Life!”