Business Class by Keith L. Alexander

In-Flight Glossies Share A Lucrative Demographic

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

If magazine advertisers want to reach the most affluent readership, they need not turn to Fortune, Forbes or Real Simple. Instead, they could target in-flight magazines.

Those glossy airline publications stuffed in the aircraft seat backs that seem full of destination profiles, crossword puzzles (often already completed) and endless travel-gadget ads have the distinction of having readers ranked among the highest in average household income of general-interest publications.

According to the latest study of more than 200 national magazines and newspapers by Mediamark Research Inc., a marketing and advertising research firm, the readership of United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine ranked No. 1 in household income, at $119, 588.

Barron's was second with $110,562. The Economist came in third with household income of $107,024, while American Airlines' American Way magazine was fourth, at $100,026.

Of the top 10 magazines in terms of readers' household incomes, five were airline publications: the magazines of United, American, Delta, Southwest and Northwest airlines.

Advertising Age magazine reporter Nat Ives said in-flight magazines are attractive to advertisers not for their articles but for the type of reader they capture -- a wealthy one who is stranded for hours at a time with the publication. And not only wealthy, but well-educated and technologically advanced.

"They get a lot of business travelers who are flying all the time. The reality for advertisers is that they get to get in front of people with real disposable incomes, much more so than other magazines," Ives said.

No wonder the airlines stopped handing out free issues of Newsweek, People and other popular magazines to passengers. Many of the carriers don't publish the in-flight magazines themselves, but share in the advertising revenue.

Twice a year, Mediamark releases data on the demographics of media users. Magazines and other media companies use the information to help them determine which publications to target. The higher the readers' income, the more a magazine can charge for advertising.

United boasts a circulation of about 2 million readers each month for Hemispheres, which is available free on its flights.

Randy Johnson, Hemispheres' editor in chief, said the biggest difference between his magazine and some traditional newsstand publications such as National Geographic is that readers of Hemispheres read the publication while they're actually traveling, while many National Geographic readers are "armchair travelers."

"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 said. The magazine recently launched a Web site to accompany the magazine and has increased its staff; the number of pages has grown to 163 from 114 in 2002.

And it's not just larger, international airlines that boast strong demographics. Readers of Southwest Airlines' Spirit magazine had an average household income of about $94,000. Despite being the nation's largest budget carrier, Southwest's readers' average income was about $1,600 higher than Northwest's readers'.

A full-page color ad in United's magazine costs about $48,320, while a full-page ad in Barron's is about $30,088, according to 2005 figures from Barron's Web site. But larger-circulation publications that have specific audiences can demand higher ad rates. In Style magazine, which has about 9.6 million readers, charges about $109,800 for a full-page ad. Some advertisers pay more for certain publications that have sharply defined audiences such as business, sports or entertainment readers, said Samir Husni, a magazine analyst and a professor at the University of Mississippi.

"Airline magazines are a mass-market product: They target their content for the entire plane. That includes children, parents and singles, all of who have a range of income. Advertisers have no idea who they're getting when they advertise with them." Husni said.

The ads, some travelers say, aren't as important as the stories. District frequent flier Anne Seymour says she enjoys the magazines to learn about restaurants in cities where she's traveling. "I am picky when it comes to restaurants, and often [the magazines] get me with good descriptions of the menu, service and photos of fab food," she said. "Plus, I adore the crossword puzzles when I'm bored."

Alaska Air Sells Red Bull: In case you need a sharp boost of energy on your next flight, Alaska Airlines last week began offering the Red Bull energy drink to its passengers. It's free to those in first class. If you're in coach, the cost for the 8.3-ounce can is $5, about $3 more than travelers would probably pay in their local grocery stores.

Although the drink is nonalcoholic, Alaska spokeswoman Amanda Tobin says the price was set to be comparable to its charges for beer and wine. Also, the airline wanted to set a single price to reduce the chances of flight attendants having to make change. Tobin says Alaska decided to offer the energy drink because passengers requested it. "We have a lot of Red Bull aficionados on our flights," she said.

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