It has survived the challenge of onboard movies, iPads and WiFi, but Covid-19 presents a bigger threat
First published in the Financial Times, July 2020.
This weekend, some of us will once again find ourselves in a tube in the sky, flying along a “travel corridor” and perhaps reassessing this thing that we took for granted just six months ago. Much will have changed — there might be crew in PPE, empty middle seats, pre-packed meals and new procedures for boarding and disembarking — but what there almost certainly won’t be is anything to read.
Whatever you think of in-flight magazines — and there are still those who adhere to the columnist Miles Kington’s opinion that the sick bag made for more entertaining reading — this is an unusual state of affairs. In-flight magazines have been dogged and dog-eared survivors ever since a bright spark at Pan Am decided to launch the first one in 1952.
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. And while the quality of these magazines has fluctuated over the years, some are among the best travel and lifestyle magazines around, from the slick Air Canada enRoute to British Airways’ consistently well-written High Life and the sharp, millennial-friendly easyJet Traveller.
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.
But Covid-19 feels like an altogether different level of threat, as contamination fears have led to all but a tiny minority of airlines removing magazines from planes, with many of the agencies that publish them — including the British-born industry leaders Ink, Cedar and Spafax — forced to cut editorial staff.
Cedar, the publishers of High Life and Business Life for British Airways, as well as magazines for Iberia, Aer Lingus and Cathay Pacific, is unable to confirm whether any of its titles will appear on planes this year. High Life will print some copies in September for use in lounges, and content will be emailed to frequent flyers, but a restructure has meant respected staff losing jobs, including editor Andy Morris.
Other airlines have made rapid changes to their distribution models. Air Canada enRoute, published by the Spafax-owned Bookmark content agency, will print four post-lockdown issues this year but none will be distributed on planes. After printing about 105,000 copies pre-Covid, there were 90,000 copies of the July issue, with 65,000 going to subscribers of The Globe and Mail newspaper, and 25,000 being delivered to the homes of Air Canada’s Super Elite frequent flyers. Similarly, Qantas magazine, produced by Sydney content agency Medium Rare, has been sending monthly copies to 40,000 of the airline’s frequent flyers.
There are also big changes at Ink, the world’s biggest in-flight magazine publisher, where I worked between 2012 and 2017, first as the editor of Norwegian Air Shuttle’s N by Norwegian and then as an editorial director. Of Ink’s 18 airline partners in early March, only American Airlines’ American Way has remained onboard through lockdown, while Etihad and Brussels Airlines have stopped producing magazines altogether, and most of the rest remain suspended. Ink is already looking at different approaches, talking to Virgin Atlantic about the possibility of a single-use newspaper to replace its excellent Vera magazine.
But, despite restructures that have meant roughly halving the number of editorial staff in Ink’s London, New York and Singapore offices, joint chief executive Michael Keating remains bullish on the future of print on planes. “It’s absolutely not the end of in-flight magazines,” insists Keating, who says that staff will be rehired as demand returns. “We’re looking at interim ways to serve clients across all formats, and developing existing channels like our new websites for easyJet and American Airlines, but all our existing clients still want a print product, and so do we.”
One of Keating’s big arguments is that the cardboard and paper of magazines are less contagious than other surfaces. According to Ink’s own “Clean and Green” report, passengers are almost twice as likely to catch Covid-19 from other surfaces on an aeroplane, from armrests and toilet doors, in-flight entertainment screens and card machines. More widely, there has been no evidence of anyone catching Covid-19 through a printed product, and the World Health Organization has said that newspapers are safe to handle.
But 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.
And, for most airlines, the decision on whether to keep magazines will ultimately be a commercial one. Given that most in-flight magazines pitch to advertisers on the number of passenger eyeballs (pre-Covid, American Airlines’ American Way claimed an annual readership of more than 200m), it seems clear that revenues will be hit when some airlines are struggling for survival, and most have accepted it will take years for passenger numbers to return to “normal” levels. Those advertising figures are particularly important to agencies such as Ink, whose financial model relies far more on advertising than traditional branded content, where a client pays a flat fee to an agency.
In-flight magazines are a singular format, with a singular history. In the 1920s and ’30s, Imperial Airways used to hand out the latest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald novels. In 1952 came the first edition of Pan Am’s ritzy Clipper Travel, showing a mildly awkward stewardess with a bag of fluffy toys. The oldest in-flights still in the air are KLM’s Holland Herald and AA’s American Way, both launched in 1966.
While the early in-flight magazines were initially produced by airline marketing departments, the financial model started to change in the 1970s, when airlines began to partner with outside publishers. These included Bill Davis, the colourful editor of the satirical weekly Punch, who offered to launch a clubby, aspirational magazine for British Airways, sharing advertising revenue with the airline. Despite fears that it was a crass concept during a recession, High Life launched in April 1973 with a washy cover illustration of a champagne party on a hot-air balloon and cosy features on Jilly Cooper, Michael Parkinson and the Tory peer Lord Mancroft.
Despite fears that it was a crass concept during a recession, High Life launched in April 1973 with a washy cover illustration of a champagne party on a hot-air balloon and cosy features on Jilly Cooper, Michael Parkinson and the Tory peer Lord Mancroft.
The same year, Gareth Powell launched Discovery magazine for Cathay Pacific. Powell — a flamboyant Welsh-born publisher who made his name in 1960s Sydney with a series of Playboy-esque magazines — had initially pitched Cathay a magazine in a cardboard box, including printed games and a fold-up model aircraft, only for crew to object to the idea of planes whizzing around the cabins. The box was discarded, but Discovery magazine still launched with a curious horizontal alignment (the spine on the shorter side) that had been designed to fit inside it. At the time Powell blagged that research had shown this to be the optimal shape, only to later admit this was “nonsense”.
It was Ink that arguably revolutionised the financial relationship between airlines and agencies. The company started in 1993, when Keating — then a 23-year-old researcher at London Tonight news show — found himself in a Beirut bar, chatting to one of the investors in British Mediterranean Airways, a new airline that was about to launch a single route between London and Beirut and needed an in-flight entertainment system.
Keating went out and bought 300 headsets from a cash-and-carry and delivered BMA a bespoke system, including a talk show featuring his mother Gloria Hunniford and almost-fresh Sky News broadcasts delivered via satellite dishes on top of Heathrow. On the back of this, he sold the airline on the idea of a magazine, and partnered with Simon Leslie, then a publisher of free glossy magazines in west London.
But it was a few years later that they hit on the formula for success, joining forces with another plucky challenger brand called easyJet. Whereas the likes of Davis and Powell shared costs and revenue with the airlines in a partnership, Leslie and Keating offered to take on all the costs and liabilities of the magazine, and still share profits with the airline, sometimes with a revenue guarantee.
For the airline, the offer was essentially a free marketing tool and some extra profit; for Ink, it meant a ready-made distribution model on which to capitalise with lean editorial teams and an all-action sales floor, which sometimes looks more like a stock exchange than the genteel sales wing of many publishing houses.
Despite the absence of ABC figures linking editorial quality to financial success, many of these in-flight magazines have become brilliant products. John Updike, Isaac Asimov, Gloria Steinem and the pop artist Peter Max are just some of the names to have graced American Way, for example, while High Life has published the likes of AA Gill, Will Self, Antony Beevor and Zoe Williams. And many in-flights have been more creative than anything on newsstands — think of Virgin Atlantic’s almost postmodern Carlos magazine in 2003, wholly illustrated on brown paper, or the arthouse redesign of Vueling’s Ling magazine, which resulted in one inexplicable 2009 cover of Chairman Mao with glasses and a cigarette scrawled on.
For me, at least, this creative possibility remains what in-flight magazines are about. And, whereas digital products tend to get lost in an ocean of content, print still makes perfect sense in the unique bubble of the aircraft cabin. I hope that onboard magazines are not a quiet casualty of Covid-19, and that they come back stronger than ever. Otherwise, I might just end up turning to the sick bag.