When you ride in an airplane, you never know who you are going to sit next to. Case in point: One time, on the way home from a business trip, I took a seat next to an Iowa farmer who worshipped cats. For the entire flight, he tried to recruit me to join his religion. True story.

Recently, on the way back from Chicago, however, I had the fortune of sitting next to two 34-year-old traveling linemen in the front row of a Southwest Airlines flight. When I heard them talking about line work, I asked them if they were linemen, and they told me they were both with IBEW Local 304.

For the next hour, we then talked about tools and trends in the electric utility industry. Here are some of their views on technology and social media.

  1. Facebook keeps linemen connected

    When I met the two linemen — Paul Emery and Stephen Biggs — I was flying home from the national American Society of Business Publication Editors conference. At this event, I accepted a national award for the Electric Utility Operations section on behalf of the T&D World team. I also attended several sessions on how editors connect with their readers through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Linked In.

    On the flight, I asked the linemen if they used Facebook, and both of them said it was a great tool to connect with other linemen. For example, if the linemen work on storms together and become good friends, but then work in different parts of the country, they can “friend” each other to stay involved in each other's lives.

    In addition, social media tools help keep linemen up-to-date on the latest transmission and distribution projects. Facebook and Twitter allow traveling linemen like Paul and Stephen to find out about openings when they're first advertised, giving them a competitive edge.

    These linemen are not only discovering the latest job openings through social media, but they are also receiving discounts from vendors. For example, Paul and Stephen have friended a company called LinemanBarn.com on Facebook. As such, the linemen often receive special promotional codes, which they can enter for reduced shipping rates or discounts on linemen-themed hats, shirts or hoodies.

  2. Cell phones help linemen get the job done

    While linemen don't spend their days behind a computer in an office, they are rarely seen without their cell phones. On the flight, I asked the linemen how they use their cell phones on the job. Paul said his phone is an invaluable tool when it comes to storms. In the past, a manager would have to call each of the crew members to come into work. Now, he or she can simply send a group text message with instructions.

    Over the years, cell phones have become almost like compact computers. Some of the newest models feature 8-megapixel cameras, dual-core processors, SD cards with gigabytes of storage and HD displays. These new phones are bridging the gap between old handsets and modern laptop computers. Linemen now can read and send e-mail messages, and access countless applications in the palm of their hand.

  3. Laptops are a standard tool in linemen's trucks

    Many of the technologically savvy electrical utilities are equipping their linemen with ruggedized, powerful computers. By having access to these computers, the linemen are able to capture data electronically, retrieve records and improve productivity in the field.

On the flight, Paul said he brings his laptop with him on the job, and Stephen mentioned a company that is said to offer a tablet that rivals the I-Pad.

As we move into 2012, I am taking a close look at how I can better serve the readers of Electric Utility Operations section of T&D World magazine. Now that I know linemen are using cell phones and social media, I'm planning on using this technology to keep them up-to-date on what's going on with this special section of the magazine.

To that end, I started up a Facebook page for our Electric Utility Operations section. I have also followed T&D World editor Vito Longo's lead of setting up an account on Twitter. By becoming better versed and integrated into social media, I hope to reach out to readers of Electric Utility Operations, have a close eye on the industry, and stay on top of the latest trends and tools.

Editor's note: If you are a lineman who is savvy about social media, please become a fan of Electric Utility Operations on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @EUOeditor. By connecting with linemen online, we hope to keep our readers even more informed on the latest projects, tools and technology in the utility industry. I also invite you to e-mail me (afischbach@tdworld.com) your photos from the field, and ideas for future articles and what you would like to see on our Facebook page.