Big Pharma At 30,000 Feet


In my defense, it was right there in front of me. It was boldfaced, colorful, plentiful and in plain view.

I'm talking about the laptop computer screen of a fellow airplane passenger late last week. I was sitting on one side of the aisle. He was on the other, but one row up.

And for nearly the entire five-hour flight from Newark, NJ to Los Angeles the thing was wide open. I didn't have to lean forward, squint, or put on my glasses to see what the guy was working on: a presentation on the marketing plans for a new drug — one I had never even heard of. We're talkin' dozens of pretty PowerPoint pages promising a "deep dive" into how the company hopes to get insurance companies to pay for the drug.

I don't want to get anyone in trouble, so I won't name the company, the drug or even what it's for. (Note to corporate PR folks reading this: Don't even try to pry it out of me. My lips are sealed.) All I'll say is that it's one of the biggies.

I jotted down the unfamiliar drug name on a newspaper I'd been reading and after we landed I Googled it on my BlackBerry. It's up for FDA approval.

When flying out of the world's medicine chest (New Jersey) the odds are pretty good that you could be seated next to or near a pharmaceutical company employee.

As a reporter I'm paid to be nosey, curious, observant, etc. Those innate qualities are among the reasons I chose this profession.

I know it's not right to peer at the laptop screens of fellow airline passengers, but this one was too obvious to ignore. You're captive in a closed metal tube for several hours. There's only so much reading and staring off into space you can do. And the batteries had gone dead on my portable DVD player right in the middle of "The Bucket List."

I've also been on the other end.

When I fly to cover medical and scientific conferences where stock-moving data will be presented, I have a bag full of research and strictly embargoed press releases and studies, some of which I'll read on the plane.

Thousands of analysts, investors and biopharma people who are traveling to the same meetings can see my work, so I'm always super careful about what I pull out in flight. I'll usually cup my arm and hand around sensitive documents on my tray table or wait to go over certain things until I'm in the privacy of my hotel room.

Maybe this guy was giving his presentation that afternoon, so he didn't have that kind of time after arriving in L.A.

I don't think I learned any corporate secrets, so this is probably just a cautionary tale.

And, perhaps, at a time when private corporate air travel is under assault, it could also serve as an anecdotal argument for why some folks shouldn't fly commercial.

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