The Inflight Magazine Edition

On print, flying, and content

American Way, the in-flight magazine from American Airlines is being discontinued along with Delta and Southwest. We’re re-running our edition on the joy of a good in-flight magazine, and the worldview it creates. -Colin (CJN)

Colin here. It is a scene familiar to most travelers. On the sixth hour of the JetBlue flight from Kennedy to LA, or the 11th hour of that Cathay Pacific flight from London to Hong Kong, you exhaust your pile of reading materials, have watched all the movies on your list, and still have fifty minutes to kill. Out of options, you gravitate to the in-flight magazine. 

Because these magazines have to appeal to anyone willing to dip their hand in a seatback pocket, they can tend towards generic. For the most part, domestic magazines include a few pieces of original travel reportage per issue plus a few front-of-book tidbits and a ton of advertising for businesses in the hubs the airline operates. 

With that said, some of the international carriers have a bit more lifestyle panache and wouldn’t feel out of place on a well-curated newsstand. Air France’s Madame title does luxury and fashion well, British Airways High Life has a decidedly English, cosmopolitan feel, and Cathay Pacific’s Discovery has a chic, global worldview and a luxury tone catering to the high net worth business travelers of the region. Even Delta’s in-flight offering, Sky, had mirrored the updated brand itself—it felt fresh, bright, and original in terms of the stories it ran as well as the balance between mass appeal and insider information. Unfortunately, the entire subcontracted staff was laid off in late March 2020. This sadly portends the future for more of these titles. And though many in-flight mags are a port of last resort, there are still some that are worth saving. 

Why is this interesting? 

When your readership drops by 50% overnight, as it did for in-flight magazines in March 2020, you’ve got a severe problem. The issue goes beyond just readership, though, as the seatback magazine presents a hurdle to maintaining a healthy and efficient airplane. How’s that? The FT offered a few clues:

“...a spokesperson for Etihad, which has suspended its magazine indefinitely, says there are other factors at play behind removing in-flight magazines from seat pockets — including allowing for more efficient deep cleans of aircraft and reducing fuel burn. When United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine shed just an ounce by reducing the weight of its paper in 2017, it was reported that the airline saved 170,000 gallons of fuel a year, or roughly $290,000 in costs.

There’s a lot to bet against when it comes to the survival of these publications. Paper is heavy, and most people have their own devices and laptops, to name just two. But the economics of in-flight magazines are still compelling, which is part of the reason they made it this far. The FT continues: 

Of the 150 or so in-flight magazines before lockdown, most claimed pick-up rates of more than 80 per cent, thanks to a captive audience. Such engagement explains why, against a broad decline in print advertising, in-flights have survived the arrival of onboard movies, iPads and in-flight WiFi — just three of the things that many predicted would kill them off. 

It turns out in a world of digital advances in marketing, captive analog attention is still worthwhile to advertisers.  And there are generally large numbers of travelers behind them—American Way reportedly had an audience of “around 200 million a year.” During a pandemic, many of the largest publications don’t know if they will make any return to the seatback pocket anytime soon. Without eyeballs, the ability to generate a profit for the airlines evaporates.

This all makes sense. But what I appreciate about the power of a good in-flight magazine is its world-building capability. It is a meaningful signal that tells you a lot about the underlying brand of the airline. If the magazine is good, the airline probably is too. Singapore Airlines. Finnair. Cathay. Emirates. All good magazines. Why? Investing the money to manifest a strong editorial sensibility, interesting design, and good stories normally comes from a brand that has its story straight about who it is and who it is trying to serve. And the magazine, by proxy, serves as an extension of these values. I hope, however foolish it may be, to be reading a print copy of SWISS magazine on final approach to Geneva in a year’s time. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).