In my line of work, I fly a lot. I've seen it all, from irritating delays to lost luggage to near-death experiences (for more on the latter, check out my recent TED Talk).

I know from first-hand experience that for jet-setting professionals, the work week can be a dizzying blur of takeoffs, landings, and stuffy airport lounges.

And while a business class seat certainly makes for a more comfortable travel experience (hello, legroom), I've discovered a more productive way to spend my time onboard than watching movies or chipping away at work with spotty in-flight wifi.

Next time you're flying business class, consider stowing your laptop in favor of the newest trend in corporate air travel: mid-flight networking.

Networking on the fly

Of course, I'm not the only one who's caught onto the notion of in-flight networking.

Airlines are leveraging their influence over in-flight seating arrangements to unveil new programs designed to bring seatmates together.

Delta's Innovation Class, for example, puts a spin on the usual airplane class distinctions.

Functioning as an "intellectual matchmaker," applicants accepted into the Innovation Class get the chance to be seated with other visionaries and titans of industry during business travel.

Similarly, KLM's Meet & Seat program gives travelers the option to share their social media details with fellow passengers.

When selecting seats, you can peruse your potential seatmates' Facebook and LinkedIn profiles for professional points of interest and commonalities.

If your airline doesn't offer such perks, fret not--there's an app for that.

The first "geo-aware" networking app, Here On Biz, uses LinkedIn's platform to facilitate airport meetups for like-minded travelers with time to kill.

Users are matched with nearby travelers who share their alma mater, job title, or profession, and can meet for drinks while waiting to board.

Mastering the airborne exchange

Before you plunge into an eager conversation with your seatmate, however, it's important to keep some parameters in mind.

In general, the rules for conversing on an airplane are the same as they would be at a "grounded" networking event.

Make sure the person is receptive to conversation--simple body language should provide obvious clues.

Look out for easily identifiable "do not disturb" signs, like avoiding eye contact, reading, or reclining with eyes closed.

Odds are, your headphone-wearing seatmate isn't going to be interested in making small talk. A better bet might be the passenger across the aisle who appears unoccupied and ready to chat.

When starting a conversation, don't dive headfirst into an interrogation about your cabin mate's business strategy.

Instead, start with a warm hello and establish your presence as a friendly, agreeable person. Then, broach a common topic, like the purpose of your trip.

To guide the conversation towards business, show genuine interest in his or her role, professional life, and goals upon reaching your shared destination.

In the event that you hit it off, be sure to have business cards on hand to facilitate the post-flight follow-up.

Social seating is redefining the notion of air travel ROI. With the right attitude, app, and a little bit of tact, your next professional connection--or record-breaking deal--might be just a tray table's length away.

Published on: Apr 20, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.