As he settles into seat 17-C, the businessman is consumed by a single purpose: to use the full two hours of flying time to prepare for a meeting first thing in the morning. No sooner has he unsnapped his briefcase than, in quick order, a baby across the aisle begins to yowl, his seatmate wants to talk about her first trip to New York, and a voice over the intercom asks everyone to douse the lights and pull down the shades ''for your enjoyment of our full-length feature film.''
What's a working man or woman to do? He or she can surrender to the demons lurking at 30,000 feet or follow the example of those savvy business travelers among us who use both airports and airplanes as extensions of their offices. Some have so mastered the art that they actually look forward to spending time in the tubular vacuum where they claim the creative juices flow unchecked.
''For me,'' says a much traveled corporate lawyer of my acquaintance, ''a flight is the last chance, the night before the exam, and I use every second to cram.''
Where to set up shop on the plane is the first concern. Although business class and first class generally make for quieter, roomier working conditions, a well-prepared flier can get the job done in coach. Some indeed prefer the coach section when it's empty: There is more space to spread out materials and fewer interruptions from flight attendants.
''I think we're seeing more and more business travelers opting for window seats,'' says Coleman Lollar, managing editor of Frequent Flyer magazine. ''At one time the aisle was thought to be the sophisticated place to sit, but the window ensures a lot more privacy.''
Those who consider their flying time inviolable will do anything to preserve their privacy. An IBM executive I met on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to New York recently admitted he accepted the proffered headphones not just to hear classical music, which he enjoys, but to drown out the chatter and noise of the cabin and discourage conversation from - he laughed - strangers like me.
According to a longtime TWA flight attendant I know, no business traveler is quite so capable of wrapping himself in a six-mile-high cocoon as William F. Buckley Jr. ''I had Mr. Buckley on a transatlantic flight,'' she said, ''and he had what looked like a month's worth of work beside him, piled all the way up to his lap. I noticed he didn't speak to the man beside him, he was so totally engrossed. When he got up to stretch his legs, the other man called me over. He said he couldn't find his shoes under the pile of Mr. Buckley's discarded papers. We finally found one and then another, but it wasn't his shoe. Sure enough, when Mr. Buckley came back he was wearing the other man's shoe on one of his feet.''
Bringing the right materials aboard is vital to performance: Just try getting anything more than paper and pencil from an attendant - or even that, if the beverage wagon is rolling. Yellow legal pads and a handful of pens or pencils are standard equipment. So, too, with many travelers are microcassette tape recorders (although I have never mastered the art of talking to a square of black plastic in public). More and more portable computers are being carried aboard in attache cases although certain airlines have outlawed them temporarily because of interference with navigational signals, or left the decision to the pilot. One sees portable electronic typewriters being popped out of cases and onto tray tables with gathering frequency. Models such as the Brother EP 22 are lightweight and noiseless, even if they don't do polished work.
One of the rare joys of airplane travel was always the chance to escape the jangle of telephones, and yet it was only a matter of time before in-flight phoning became a reality. By April, most of the major airlines will have installed a device called Airfone on wide-body domestic planes. For better or worse, a passenger will be able to approach a wall station, insert a credit card into a machine, and take a cordless phone to his seat. Charge for 3 minutes: $7. 50.
Many executives swear by the special business-class sections some airlines provide. Yet it's my guess that they are as swayed by the lure of accumulating mileage toward free trips as they are by the wider seats, extended legroom, and choice of meal. Otherwise rational business people are known to fly hundreds of miles out of their way to pile up bonus mileage.
Flying business class can make good sense on intercontinental flights when the extra space and comfort help to counteract the long hours aloft. Pan Am Clipper Class (whose patrons get free helicopter service to and from J. F. Kennedy International Airport), TWA's Ambassador, and British Airways Club Class have solid enough service, but the acknowledged leader is Scandinavian Airlines and its First Business Class. For full economy price, SAS passengers get seats as well contoured as a Volvo's and in-flight telex and telephone service. Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport can provide, in its Scanorama lounge, multilingual secretaries to send off free telexes anywhere in Europe.
Of course the ultimate working aid for the high-flying executive is still the Concorde, which zips overseas in 31/2 hours on Air France and British Airways, putting the rout to jet lag. A westbound flight leaves Charles de Gaulle at 11 in the morning and arrives at JFK at 8:45 the same morning, so theoretically one can schedule an early meeting in Paris and a full day's business in New York. That's not my style, but someone has to pay for those $1,408 seats.