It’s an instinctive action: The moment you have settled into your aeroplane seat, be it a luxurious recliner in business class or the cramped chair of torture in the economy section of a budget airline, you reach for the in-flight magazine. Even if it only serves to amuse you until the in-flight films are switched on, airline magazines nowadays are a thriving industry and almost every airline in the world has one.
Still, the standards of in-flight entertainment vary. Fly with Singapore Airlines and you can complete an interactive language course in the language of your destination whilst budget Irish airline, Ryanair, will leave you staring at the flight safety card for the duration of the flight.
In an increasingly digital and interactive world, one might expect the humble in-flight magazine to be left behind, but the glossy, highbrow, well-designed magazines in the seat pockets are barely recognisable, compared to the booklets that were handed out even as recently as five years ago.
Airlines spend big money employing publishing houses to produce the magazines. And it’s not just about keeping the passengers entertained, as the magazine is one of the few things (apart from the socks or eye mask) that passengers like to take away with them. A good magazine can do wonders for word-of-mouth advertising (Kulula.com’s !_LT_EMComic Life!_LT_/EM proclaims on a banner on the cover: “Take it home”).
This brings one to the question: Are in-flight magazines purely an exercise in public relations, or bona fide travel publications?
Definitely not, says Deidre Theron-Loots, editor of !_LT_EMAltitude!_LT_/EM, local airline Nationwide’s magazine. She contends that, given that their readers are passengers on Nationwide airlines,!_LT_EM Altitude!_LT_/EM can be loosely defined as a consumer publication.
“While our publication does, to some extent, fulfill a public relations function for the carrier, we are not merely a mouthpiece for Nationwide airlines. As such, the content of our publication carries journalistic merit. Other than content pertaining to the airline, or the CEO’s letter, we have full editorial freedom,” she says.
In contrast, !_LT_EMMango Juice!_LT_/EM, Mango’s airline magazine, says Mango “signs off on every page before going to print,” but does not “dictate editorial content,” according to the editor, Sarah Cuttel.
An advertiser’s dream
mce_keep=”true”The captive audience ensured by passengers in a cramped space with only a magazine for distraction is a lucrative incentive for advertisers. A recent article in !_LT_EMThe Washington Post!_LT_/EM said magazine advertisers wanting to reach the most affluent readership, need not turn to Fortune or Forbes. Instead, they should target in-flight magazines.
According to the latest study of more than 200 American magazines and newspapers by Mediamark Research Inc., a marketing and advertising research firm, the readership of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine ranked first in household income, at US$119,588. !_LT_EMBarron’s!_LT_/EM, a financial weekly published by Dow Jones & Company, was second and !_LT_EMThe Economist!_LT_/EM came in third, while American Airlines’ !_LT_EMAmerican Way!_LT_/EM magazine was fourth. Of the top 10 magazines in terms of American readers’ household incomes, five were airline publications: the magazines of United, American, Delta, Southwest and Northwest airlines.
In-flight magazines are attractive to advertisers not for their articles but for the type of reader they capture Ã¢Â€Â“ a wealthy one who is stranded for hours at a time with the publication, and who is also well-educated and technologically advanced.
Andy Johnson, editor of Hemispheres, United Airlines’ magazine, says the biggest difference between his magazine and some traditional news-stand publications such as !_LT_EMNational Geographic!_LT_/EM is that readers of Hemispheres read the publication while they’re actually travelling, while many !_LT_EMNational Geographic!_LT_/EM readers are armchair travellers.
“When you look at the affluent statistics, what lies behind that is a portrait of a reader who is extremely culturally aware, who participates in outdoor sports and museums, and is a very socially sophisticated kind of person,” Johnson says.
The magazine recently launched a website to accompany the magazine and has increased its staff; the number of pages has grown to 163 from 114 in 2002. They currently have about two-million readers a month.
But it isn’t only the big international airlines who claim lucrative demographics. !_LT_EMAltitude!_LT_/EM describes their average reader as a “business traveller between 30 and 50 in the Living Standards Measure (LSM) 8 Ã¢Â€Â“ 10″. And their 125,000 readers a month rivals some of South Africa’s top-selling magazines’ readership. Similarly, !_LT_EMMango Juice!_LT_/EM, Mango’s in-flight magazine, prints 15,000 copies a month for their approximately 120,000 readers.
Although !_LT_EMMango Juice!_LT_/EM is published by New Media Publishing, a local publishing house well-known for their contract titles for big companies such as Edgars, First National Bank and Daimler-Chrysler, !_LT_EMMango Juice!_LT_/EM’s publisher, Andrew Nunneley, regards the magazine as a consumer magazine with a twist.
“The glossy, highbrow, well-designed magazines in the seat pockets are barely recognizable, compared to the booklets that were handed out even as recently as five years ago.”
“!_LT_EMMango Juice!_LT_/EM is produced to compete with paid titles for great content and news-stand values,” he says.
Some local budget airlines, like Mango and Kulula.com, do adjust their content to fit a lower LSM. !_LT_EMMango Juice!_LT_/EM’s editor, Sarah Kuttel, says that “knowing that Mango passengers range from LSM 2 Ã¢Â€Â“ 10, we try to ensure that our articles are written in accessible language and that any products featured in the magazine are not outrageously expensive”.
Makes for interesting reading
Toni Ackermann, editor of !_LT_EMabouTime!_LT_/EM, low-cost airline 1Time’s in-flight magazine, says the diversity of passengers on local flights poses a challenge to the content selected.
According to her, both business travellers and first-time fliers (the “unflown” market) travel on low-cost airlines, and the content must therefore be interesting to everybody.
All local in-flight magazines currently focus their content on travel writing and so-called destination articles. !_LT_EMAltitude !_LT_/EMsays it devotes the “greater part of its editorial content” to travel writing, focusing on both local and international destinations, since Nationwide also flies to London and has code share agreements with international airlines such as KLM and Air France. !_LT_EMMango Juice!_LT_/EM publishes one feature-length article under the “Road Trip” banner and has sections devoted to each of Mango airline’s destinations (Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and at times, Bloemfontein). A two-page interview with a celebrity or high-profile person entitled “My Suitcase” covers what the interviewee packs, where they travel to, and other travel-related questions.
Ackermann says !_LT_EMabouTime!_LT_/EM features at least three travel or destination articles in each magazine, as well as a “mixture of festivals, events, entertainment-type articles and wine routes”. She also feels airline magazines have a responsibility to contribute to the growth of tourism in South Africa.
“We try to feature a small town or wayward destination in each month’s magazine, to give coverage to places that are just as fabulous as others, but less well-known. We have a good relationship with many tourism offices around South Africa, which I think is also a positive thing,” she says.
On a winning streak
As with any competitive industry, rivalry amongst airline magazines is common. They compete not only for advertisers, but also for industry awards.
The World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA), based in the United States, annually awards airlines for excellence in in-flight entertainment. According to the WAEA’s spokesperson, Ellen Kinnier, there is a special category dedicated to in-flight magazines. “Air Canada and Royal Brunei Airlines were the winners at the most recent awards, but British Airways also publishes a magazine of very high standard,” she says.
According to Kinnier, the WAEA “takes the business of passenger entertainment seriously” and winners are selected by passengers themselves, who complete surveys to determine which magazine is the best.
Locally, South African Airways’ magazine, !_LT_EMSawubona!_LT_/EM, has dominated, scooping the Advantage AdMag awards for best local in-flight magazine in 2001 and 2002, as well as the 2002 Mondi Award for best journalism in the leisure category. The AdMag awards currently do not have an in-flight magazine category, but there is a category for travel and leisure, according to Advantage’s website.
Although South African in-flight magazines still have a long way to go before being able to directly compete with international airline publications, they are definitely not winging it. It may still be a contentious issue of whether they actually qualify as journalism; in-flight magazines are still read religiously by thousands of sleep-deprived businesspeople, commuters, honeymooners and backpackers every month. It’s a burgeoning emerging market, and it should be interesting to see what heights these publications will soar to in the future.
Ã¢Â–Â This article first appeared in The Media magazine.