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In-flight magazines are facing an uncertain future

To streamline their onboard cleaning process, airlines pulled in-flight magazines from their planes. The future of the publications is uncertain, though publishing experts are hopeful.
To streamline their onboard cleaning process, airlines pulled in-flight magazines from their planes. The future of the publications is uncertain, though publishing experts are hopeful. (iStock)

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, airlines have instituted onboard cleaning measures that include the removal of incidental perks. Gone, at least for now, are in-flight magazines. But what about tomorrow? Experts in the publishing field remain hopeful that the glossy travel magazines will return to their rightful place in the seat back pocket.

“Right now, any publications that deal with travel will need to reposition themselves,” said Linda Ruth, chief executive of Publishing Management and Consulting in New Hampshire, “but I don’t think we will see airline magazines going away entirely.”

To better facilitate the disinfectant process, domestic and international carriers have pulled the April issues from their planes. Any magazines already onboard will not be replaced. Future issues may never leave the ground.

“We’ve made a number of interim adjustments to minimize nonessential operational tasks so we can focus on the safety of our customers and employees,” United said in a statement. “One of those steps is to alleviate our crews from replenishing all materials from seat back pockets except safety information cards and motion sickness bags.”

Delta is following the same protocol. “Delta is streamlining its onboard cleaning process by removing nonessential items from seat back pockets, including Sky magazine, until further notice,” said Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman.

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With a cliff-drop in advertising and passengers, the global crisis could imperil in-flight magazines, a treasured diversion for more than half a century — if not for the dreamy destination articles than for the crossword puzzle in the back. Several possible casualties have already started to surface.

Last week, MSP Communications and Pace Communications, the publishers of Delta Sky Magazine and Southwest: The Magazine, respectively, shared some disheartening news with their contributors. According to the emails, which we reviewed, the magazines were folding and laying off their staff. On Twitter, Dana Raidt, former depty editor of Delta Sky, wrote “ . . . just a heads up the Delta Sky magazine team (including me) has been laid off and the mag is no more.” Neither MSP nor Pace responded to messages seeking comment. However, representatives from Southwest and Delta said the airlines have not yet determined the fate — or future — of their magazines. (The airlines hire outside companies to run their magazines and do not make personnel decisions for the content providers or publishers.)

“We remain in conversations,” said Michelle Agnew, a Southwest spokesperson.

Black said, “We have not made a decision yet about this topic.”

Two major publishers and content creators with nearly three dozen in-flight magazine titles combined are adjusting to the challenges with a mix of resourcefulness, flexibility and optimism. Michael Keating, chief executive of Ink, said his company will have to withhold some issues, but he does not expect any of the 30 titles in Ink’s portfolio to fold. (The company publishes magazines for American, United, Singapore Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Virgin Atlantic, among others.) He said his creative teams, which are based in offices around the United States, Europe and Asia, will repurpose content for later issues or turn a monthly into a bimonthly. They will also boost the magazines’ online presence.

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“When passengers are traveling less, we continue to communicate with them digitally,” he said. “However, this is a temporary situation, and we are already planning what we’re calling our bounce-back issues.”

Keating said future coverage could focus on the airlines’ contributions during the crisis, such as repatriating travelers, and honor personnel who volunteered their time. As an example, he pointed to crew members with easyJet and Virgin Atlantic who helped construct the National Health Service’s Nightingale Hospital, a 4,000-bed facility in London. The magazines will also embrace the post-pandemic landscape, offering inspiration to travelers eager to revise their original bucket lists.

“I believe that people may travel in a slightly different way,” Keating said. “Travelers may crave wide open spaces, cross-generational family vacations, enjoying the great outdoors and adventure trips.”

Maxposure Media fills the magazine pages for six airlines in Asia and the Middle East, including Air India, Jazeera Airways and Air Arabia. The company had to cut some of its April issues in India after the government ordered a national lockdown. However, Sasha Somya, client acquisition and management head at Maxposure, said the magazines are still vital and are looking forward past the pandemic.

“We are currently working on the May editions for most of our clients,” she said, “planning celebratory resumption issues to support not just airlines but also hotels and tourism boards.”

For now, passengers can read their in-flight magazines at zero altitude on their computers. Most of the airlines post a digital version of their magazine. United’s Hemispheres, for one, shares restaurant recommendations that were adapted for at-home dining. The intro explains the new reality: “Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. is currently airing on Bravo, and while past seasons have inspired us to reserve a table and eat out, the era of self-isolation has changed all that. . . . If you’re sick of daily PB & Js and midnight boxes of mac and cheese, you’ll want to add these spots to your quarantine meal rotation.”

The Takeout Editions cover a swath of the United States, including the Midwest, Hawaii, California, the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies.

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