I fly quite often for work. Some of these trips require up to 12 hours flight time. My salary is not on an hourly basis and I do not get overtime for the time spent travelling.

I was recently flying with a colleague on a shorter flight(6 hours) and was reading a novel to pass the time on the flight. He suggested that it was unprofessional to do so because we were on company business. He spent the flight staring blankly at "documentation" for the trip that we already knew back to front.

Am I somehow conning my company?

Note: I checked my employee handbook. Zilch about what you can and can't do while travelling but you are always supposed to travel economy and if anybody has experience of trying to do work in economy....

  • 13
    Please put answers in answers, and take colorful commentary to The Workplace Chat. Thanks. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 16:27
  • 7
    Is this colleague a superior or a peer?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 16:44
  • 6
    "Am I somehow conning my company?" No.
    – user8025
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 17:07
  • 38
    Frankly, I'd be a little worried about your colleague's overblown work ethic, and the attendant risks to his health, both mental and physical.
    – Eric Lloyd
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 21:05
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    I don't think this merits an answer, but I have a point to add. By working a 12 hour shift on the plane while you could be resting, you are doing your employer a disservice. When at your destination you will be expected to work, and if you are not well rested from the trip you will not perform well.
    – kleineg
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 14:41

13 Answers 13


He suggested that it was unprofessional to do so because we were on company business

The way you spend time during commute is in no way related to the company. So, that can't be even gauged as professional or unprofessional. So, your colleague here is wrong.

Maybe he is suggesting that you might want to read up on the documentation so that you can get better prepared for the meetings. But, it is up to you how you spend your time during commute.

  • 63
    Not all of the people pounding laptops are working. They may be catching up on mail, doing personal projects, playing games... If review would be helpful, you can certainly use the flight time to review. If not, using the time to relax may actually be of greated value to your employer.
    – keshlam
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 12:44
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    Even if other people are working on travel, that is their choice. Don't feel the need to compare yourself to them.
    – David K
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 13:01
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    My experience is that if you use the restroom at the rear of the plane and then walk back to your seat so you can see all the laptop screens, they will virtually all contain movies or games of solitaire. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 14:11
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    I agree with "wrong", but a business trip is not the same as a commute. You can get paid for travelling and it's a totally different matter in that case.
    – user42685
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 19:11
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    @StefanWalter In that case, yes. But OP indicates he is not being paid for the time he travels.
    – Mast
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 9:01

Never have I heard of someone being required to be "working" for 100% of the waking hours they're on a trip for their employer. It's unreasonable, IMO.

If anything, in my experience it's expected that you not be working 100% of the time. The trip is, in a way, an imposition upon you. The company is sending you far from home to do your job. That also means that you're not at home to do the things you would normally do outside work.

Simply being on that plane was "doing something for the company" because it's required as part of the job. Would sleeping on the flight be unprofessional? 12 hours is a long time to be on a plane without a nap.

My brother was sent cross-country for 10 days to work in his company's offices on the west coast. As they adhere to normal business hours, there was literally nothing work-related for him to do over the weekend. Was he obligated to spend those two days in his hotel room trying to find something work-related to do? No. He was free to use the time as he saw fit because, although he was displaced by the company for 10 days, they do not own every waking moment of those 10 days of his life.

Take the trip and read whatever you want on the plane. Work a "normal" business day at the remote location, maybe put in an hour or two to catch up on things that you couldn't do because of meetings or being out of phone contact. But once you've done that, take the time to enjoy the place that your company has sent you to. Explore the city. Catch a show (if the city has a theatre district). Go to a sporting event if that's your thing. Just don't get yourself in trouble with the locals.

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    This is the correct attitude. Work travel is such an imposition that we are paid expenses and per diem, and should spend the time we're not working as we see fit. It took years of collective work for society to reach this point, volunteering to give up these hard earned privileges takes many steps backwards.
    – FoxDeploy
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 15:32
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    Yep, relatedly, this is why the company pays for your meals while you travel even though you'd normally be eating otherwise.
    – fluffy
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 17:38
  • Yes your job is to be ready and fit for the next meeting, and if it takes you to read a book while in a boring flight for hours, then you're actually doing what your company expect you to do
    – Nikko
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 12:24

I would view it as a sign of being unprepared if I had to work while flying. That's fine if it is a trip that came up without notice, but not for a planned trip. This is especially true if the trip is outside your normal business hours.

The expectation is the simply travelling to a site is business just as if you should not be expected to do business en route while driving to another site an hour away (And if you are then leave that company, they are risking lives!), there is no need to do anything else.

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    I'd say choosing to prepare during a long flight would actually fall into the category of time management; it really depends, and frankly if my only options are spend time with my family and prepare on the plane, or prepare at home so I can sit and do nothing on the plane, I'll pick spending time with my family.
    – Andy
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 17:00
  • comments removed: Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use The Workplace Chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details.
    – jmort253
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 5:39

It is not unprofessional to not be working whilst travelling. The company does not own you and you are doing them a favour by travelling - that takes a lot of time, you are away from home, etc.

In my opinion the only people that are obliged to be working on the plane are the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and the cabin crew. Anybody else it is optional.

I personally do not plan to work on a plane. Simply because you do not know who you will be sitting next to. It could be a screaming child whereby no work would be possible.

I just enjoy the ride. Have a beer if you are the way back.

  • 21
    Even if it's not a screaming child next to you, it could be someone whom you don't want seeing company-proprietary/confidential information when he glances over at your screen or papers.
    – alroc
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 15:17
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    @alroc This is something that way more people should take into account. I spend a reasonable amount of time on trains and I've seen all sorts of business documentation and proposals right up to confidential information on government projects.
    – Dan
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 16:09
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    @Dan from the you-can't-make-this-up department, there was a news story back in 2008 about a UK spy that accidentally left some top-secret documents on a train in a folder labeled "UK Top Secret". facepalm Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 15:01
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    Also, for long flights (like the 12 hour ones mentioned in the question,) even the flight crew and the cabin crew get breaks where they aren't required to be working (they are, of course, relieved by other crew members during those times.)
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 18:50
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    I believe some organisations actually have policies forbidding staff from working on public transport like planes and trains, to avoid startlingly common issues like leaving papers or even entire laptops behind, or not realising you're sat next to a journalist who is reading over your shoulder. My previous employer had some policy like this, I forget the exact wording. Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 12:17

Since you're not flying during "normal business hours" and can assume your work has not fallen behind, you can do something personal whether you're on a plane for company business or not. I expect people to be professional by getting their work done and not making too many excuses.

Are you going to tell a different client that the reason you don't have their quote ready is because you had to sit on a plane and read a book? Will time be wasted during business hours of this trip?

Tell your colleague that you don't punch a time clock and if all your work is done, you get to do what you want. If he can't get his work done, tell him to take an easier job or stop wasting time worrying about you and faking like he's working reading some useless manual for the 10th time.

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    At a minimum I would make sure that I don't sit anywhere near this co-worker on any flights ever again.
    – Dunk
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 19:59
  • Agreed. The OP's colleague appears to be, well, a loon. Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 2:18

'Professional' is a meaningless word. What matters is whether it is sensible to stare blankly at some documentation and arrive at your destination bored and tired or read something interesting and arrive in a much better condition to work. Surely, the latter is the better option for both you and your employer, especially when you are not getting paid during the time you spend staring blankly at the document.

People who make such a big deal out of this artificial, fake notion of 'professionalism' are a liability and are best avoided. They tend to have low intelligence, little talent and little morals. They think they can compensate for it by going big on 'professionalism'.

'Professional' is a concept created by managers and executives to manipulate their employees into doing what the management wants them to do, however detrimental it is to the employees. What matters is doing things that are sensible. 'Sensible' is a meaningful concept, 'professional' is not.

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    this reads more like a rant, see How to Answer
    – gnat
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 17:36
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    @gnat this is not a rant. What could be more relevant to a discussion of a workplace issue than deciphering the code words and other jargon used in the workplace? The word "professional" is the essence of the question.
    – Tony Adams
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 20:39
  • @TonyAdams: "They tend to have low intelligence, little talent and little morals" is hardly overflowing with factual observations. Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 2:18
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    This answer is wrong anyway; "professionalism" is certainly not "meaningless". It may be overinvoked and oft misused, but in and of itself it has plenty of meaning. Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 2:19
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    @Zen I think you made a good point and really want to up vote this post. The part about not being tired and exhausted in a meeting is spot on, and one might consider that it is a work responsibility to not show up to a meeting tired and groggy and burned out. Self care is important. If you edited this post to base this on facts and remove the part about professionalism being fake, I would feel compelled to up vote this post! See How to Answer for more helpful details on what we strive for in answers on Workplace SE. Hope this helps.
    – jmort253
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 4:58

I was recently flying with a colleague on a shorter flight (6 hours) and was reading a novel to pass the time on the flight. He suggested that it was unprofessional to do so because we were on company business.

He is simply wrong.

As long as you are prepared for whatever you need to do on the other side of the trip, your travel time is your time - just as it would be on the daily commute into work from home.

Some executive positions require that you are pretty much always "on the clock", but I'm guessing that isn't the case here (or you wouldn't be talking only about a business flight).

If your colleague needed your help on a work assignment, and you mutually agree to work on it during the flight, that would be one thing. But to expect that you must fill all of your flight hours with work, is just unnecessary.


In general, I would say no, it is not unprofessional. And the idea of having someone wave their finger at you for reading a book is just a plain sad state of affairs.

That said, I can picture one of two situations where it wouldn't be completely unreasonable to chastise a colleague in such a case:

  1. Reading pornography. Do I really need to explain why this would be unprofessional?
  2. Especially if you are in uniform, reading books obviously celebrating the competition. For example, let's say you work for Toyota and you read a book entitled "the magnificence of Ford" or you're a police officer or another uniformed government agent and you are reading the unibomber manifesto.

In these two admittedly extreme situations, I would agree that you need to take into account the image you are presenting.

It may simply be that your colleague has a misplaced notion of sneering at novels, as some folks do. Or he forgot his own book and is trying to make himself feel better. Or he gets airsick when he reads, or a million other incidentals. Point is, I think you can disregard his point in general

  • 13
    There's nothing wrong with reading materials about the competition. I'd think that if you work at Toyota marketing, reading books about Ford might be required reading.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 18:20
  • I am being unclear here- reading to study the competition might be one thing, but it could certainly be perceived as celebrating the competition as well in the right circumstances and depending on the job and the corporate culture.
    – Broklynite
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 18:22
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    In some professions reading pornography could be work (well somebody has to proof read the stuff)
    – Ed Heal
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 9:52
  • Again, I didn't say you couldn't, I said you "need to take into account the image you are presenting."
    – Broklynite
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 11:41

You aren't conning your company unless you're misleading them, so if you want to be absolutely up-front you could let your boss know what you do during the flight and see if they complain.

I don't believe there's any strong standard of professionalism demanding that you to work while travelling. If there is I haven't heard about it, and I've had plenty of colleagues here in the UK who apparently haven't heard of it either. Many people do work while travelling for their own reasons: either because of deadlines (they would be working even if they weren't travelling) or because they figure they can get stuff out of the way during relatively "low-value" time (planes suck).

It may be that your colleague thinks all time is divided into "working hours" (must be used to maximise shareholder value) and "non-working hours" (used at your discretion). But when it comes to travel and overtime, especially unpaid overtime, that simply isn't the case. You've been asked to carry out a particular task (travel to the destination). You haven't been asked to do 12 hours solid work that happens to take place on a plane. Or at any rate you weren't asked clearly to do that, or you wouldn't be here!

A typical UK salaried contract that allows for unpaid overtime says that you work the hours required by your employer. I assume you're opted out of the working-time directive, which nearly every professional job in the UK asks you to do but can't require you to. So perhaps in theory a typical contract means they could ask you to work a 168-hour week. Your boss can certainly ask you to work while travelling, on exactly the same "unpaid overtime" basis that you were asked to travel in the first place.

But would your boss actually sit there with a straight face and ask you to pull that 12-hour shift in addition to the work at the destination? If not then it doesn't really matter what your colleague thinks: you aren't being asked to work the extra 12 hours and so there's no need to work the extra 12 hours. If you do your job on a "get the work done" basis then you're free as usual to organise your own time, and if you do your job on a "must be available to others during office hours" basis (for example because you're typically public-facing or have other duties that require a set schedule) then clearly that doesn't apply here since you're on a plane outside office hours and therefore cannot be available anyway!

Ultimately the difference between you and your colleague is, your colleague thinks he's been asked to do 12 hours (6 each way) more work than you think you've been asked to do. One of you is probably wrong (and I strongly suspect it's him), but if you're both right, OK, sometimes different people are asked to do different amounts of unpaid overtime. Sucks to be your colleague, but it's not a matter of professionalism.

Now, if the time you spend on the plane is being billed to a client, then you need to be clear what it is you ethically/professionally can and can't do with the time. For example, you might not be able to do work for a different client because that ultimately might lead to double-billed time. Also, the company can't mislead the client in terms of how the hours are itemised: they have a right to know what they're getting for their money, and whether you work on the plane or not might even affect their decision of whether it's worth paying for you to come to their site, as opposed to paying for you to stay home and do something else. But if that's the case you really should have said so in the question ;-)


Most of the answers so far seem opinion and experience-based. They are pretty much all correct in the end result of "You shouldn't worry" but they're all missing one critical detail.

The Key Issue:

Many companies, especially those which require frequent travel, have explicit travel policies that define conduct for situations like this. By and large (in fact I've never heard of one that doesn't follow this, though I'm only speaking for the US) those policies state that for overnight trips, you are not expected to do any work during your travel time. They may even say you should only travel during the work week, though this varies by industry/company. Generally the larger the company, the more your personal freedoms are protected (because they have a bigger reputation to protect).

Check with your HR department about any travel policies your company maintains.


You are however expected to conduct yourself professionally because during that travel time you are effectively an ambassador for your company, but reading a book during a flight is far from unprofessional. By "professional" in this case they mean don't piss anyone off, break laws, etc, because those same policies that say you don't have to work also likely state that the company is responsible for you and your actions while you're traveling.

A fun supporting anecdote:

A friend of mine flies business class a lot for consulting work. He tends to strike up conversations with fellow business travelers he sits next to in order to break the ice, and when the conversation eventually ends, invariably they will pull out their laptop and begin typing away at a spreadsheet or presentation. By contrast, my friend pulls out his Gameboy and plays MarioKart. The person he's sitting next to will almost always, after a few minutes of "Oh, you can do that?"-type silence, put away their laptop and ask if they can watch. It's definitely a business culture thing to think you have to always be working, but it's changing as people adopt more of a work/life balance mentality, and many company policies are now written to support this. After all, travel is stressful, and happy employees are more productive.


Some of the other answers touch upon this but not quite directly: during company travel your regular duties are premempted and replaced with (a) travel and (b) getting prepared to do something upon arrival.

B should be treated like any other duty -- do it when and as appropriate.

In short, under most circumstances, whether on the clock or not, during travel it is acceptable to engage in leisure activity.

In your particular case, you are accomplishing your primary duty (travel), and presumably do not have preparation that is being ignored. Since it is outside of your normal business hours, you should consider your time entirely your own within the constraints of travel.


Apparently the poster isn't paid for the travel time. So even the fact that he or she is voluntarily sitting in that airplane seat is something the company should be grateful for. Since they don't pay him, there can be no expectation that he should do anything else that is work related other than the flying.

Even if he/she was paid hourly, or given an additional holiday for the day on the flight, flying by itself is work. There is driving to the airport, standing in lines, suffering security examinations, hours of sitting in a cramped seat in a noisy airplane, all that rubbish is work. If he/she is paid, that's for the flying. Still no expectation to do anything else other than doing what you can to make the flight as sufferable as possible.

So reading a novel on this travel is about as reading a novel while you are lying on the beach during hour holiday.

This may be different if your company pays you a first class flight with the expectation that this is close enough to normal working conditions that you can be expected to work.


Though many answers have given the obvious answer of "you are not required to work on a flight outside of working hour (expected effort)", some critical aspects of how the workplace extends beyond office walls have been left out of all answers.

  1. Though the flight is on your personal time, you are sharing that time with a co-worker. As such, your conduct is partially reflective of your professional image. Your choices will impact that image. There is "what happens in vegas..." clause when co-workers are around.
  2. The position of the co-worker you travel with has impact, here.
    • If they are your boss or another sr. leader, assume you need to conduct yourself as though in the office. (unless you have many years of rapport)
    • If they are a peer-in-responsibility, you must consider how their impression of you may be shared. See #1.
    • If they are on your team (a report), you must be aware of what image you set regarding the level of expectation you'll make of them later.
  3. Decide how they see your level of effort and preparedness in the office. Regardless of whether this is a right or wrong impression.
    • If they think your are unprepared, your choice on what to do on the plane can contribute to a rumor / image that you don't prepare for the work needed. If you're not meeting expectations for performance, it'll almost certainly come back to haunt you.
    • If they think you're prepared, jovially engage them about why you need to spend your personal time to prepare more, when your performance is already quite well.

Every interaction you have with a colleague is another time you will

  • develop your leader / mentor relationship with them
  • develop knowledge among your peer group
  • demonstrate the value you bring to the company, in the eyes of company leaders
  • have your previous behavior be remembered when someone else's role changes (a peer becomes a manager).

If any of this seems unlikely to you, keep calm and carry on, you'll see it all one day. Or not. But it will affect you.

  • "Reparté", presumably? Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 2:21
  • "Rapport"? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapport
    – nekomatic
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 9:10
  • You make an interesting point. However that works both ways and I've spent hours on a flight with a man who would rather prop his eyelids up with matchsticks and pretend to be doing something useful than catch 40 winks on what he perceives to be company time.
    – Ilythya
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 11:46
  • @Ilythya was he successful at his work, or marginal? Maybe his sleeplessness was the only thing keeping him employed in that job? Or maybe he was just burning out? Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 16:00

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