Considering the technological miracle of commercial air travel, it's a bit of a paradox that most business travelers enter a data blackout zone when they fly. You get your ticket and then have to deal with a lack of information about your flight, where you'll be sitting, whom you'll be sitting with, and how you'll entertain and feed yourself when you're in the air. The airplane portion of a business trip can thus force upon you a kind of Zen release of control, which might be useful if one of the goals for your trip is to meditate. But it's more likely than not to frustrate you and make you tense.
However, you can find data about everything related to your flight before you even embark--just the kind of control that we Type A personalities need. Here are a few of the resources that can help make you feel less like one of the mooing masses in a metal cattle car.
Control your seating
Maybe you like window seats, maybe you like aisles, and that's all you ask for when you're selecting seats for your trips. But you can get a lot more granular than that to make sure you're not stuck in a bad seat (one that doesn't recline, has no window, or worse, is located in the smell zone near a galley or lavatory). Check out SeatGuru.com, which rates each seat on all the airplane models for the major carriers. There's a compact version for smart phones, too (mobile.seatguru.com), which is very useful if you need access from a Treo.
Know your craft--and your craft service
If you want to know everything about your airplane, browse around www.airliners.net, which has thousands of commercial aviation pictures. You can use the site's search function to check out the interior of your plane before you go, and for details on the experience of traveling particular routes, check out the site's Trip Reports.
But that's just the data appetizer. I know what you really care about: your airplane meal. Will your flight have awful, just plain bad, or satisfactory food? Check out Airlinemeals.net for photos and user reviews of the so-called food served on nearly every airline. And next time you travel, take a digital camera so that you can document your meal and add to the database.
Choose your seatmate
You can forgive almost anything on a flight if you have a good conversation partner next to you--or no partner at all. I used to say a prayer before each flight: "Please give me a small person who doesn't speak English." But then I got a bunch of flights sitting next to screaming infants, so now I keep my hopes to myself.
There is another way: Airtroductions, a social network for air travelers. You can use it to search for people who will be in the airport (either at the departure or arrival side) when you will and maybe find someone to share a cab from the airport into the city. Or, if you're especially lucky, you might find somebody on your same flight that you'd be interested in sitting next to (although it'll be easier to arrange seats together on a cattle-car airline like Southwest than an assigned-seat carrier like United). I leave it to the readers to determine what type of contact (business or pleasure) they would use this service for, but it sure is a clever idea. The service takes a fee for making connections, but browsing is free.
Sometimes you need to get travel-related data but you're too mobile, or too rushed, to power up your laptop. I have three products on my Treo that make me a more informed and effective road warrior.
The first, mentioned above, is Mobile Seat Guru. When the airline wants to reseat me, I find this very useful. I also have an offline version of the United Airlines timetable (United is my main airline) that runs on my Treo. This is a database of every single scheduled flight on the carrier. It doesn't even require an Internet connection to use. It's utterly valuable when a flight is canceled or my plans change and I have to negotiate with a gate agent at the airport.
Finally, I use a little app called FlightStatus to find out the live status of flights I'm about to get on or am planning to meet. It's a very lightweight program that tells you exactly when your plane is due to depart or land, and it's much faster to use than a Web site on a mobile device.
The hardware side What are your top tips for business air travel? We promise not to tell anybody else...
Those are the software products and the online services I use frequently when I travel by air. There are also a few hardware items I can't live without: an inflatable pillow, a blindfold (for long trips), and an iPod with earphones that physically block noise (I don't want to deal with the size or battery hassles of electronic noise-canceling headphones). All this is so I can shut myself off from world around me and the fact that, no matter how informed I may be, when we're flying, we really are not much more than self-loading cargo.