For years the world of publishing declared that print is dead, but one relic stood high to face its digital naysayers—the inflight magazine.
Tucked in the backseat pockets of the aircraft, the inflight magazine is a monthly to bi-monthly print that serves as the passenger’s analog entertainment as they endure minutes to hours of boredom.
My Love Affair With Inflight Magazines
As a milleXial who experienced commercial aviation before Asia’s budget airline boom, I looked forward to gathering every airline perk I could—the toys or coloring book set for every passenger aged 12 and below (it was the first thing I would ask the flight attendant in the ’80s and ’90s), the free deck of cards (upon request, which I did before the plane even took off), the special kiddie meal, and of course, the inflight magazine. Back then we would still refer to flight attendants as stewardesses.
For our long-haul flights from Manila to the United States and vice-versa, I would pour over the inflight magazine, starting with the back page list of TV channels, movie selections, and pre-recorded radio stations. It was a 12-hour flight, so I needed to keep my hyperactive mind entertained as I plugged the headset with two jacks. I’d also read the safety instructions like a comic book.
I would get excited when my father, who loved collecting die-cast planes, would purchase something from the inflight duty-free shop because that meant I could see the toys in the trolley. Did they look as good as the photos in the catalog?
When I became a professional writer for newspapers and magazines, my fascination with inflight magazines continued. I took each story seriously as I added the featured restaurants and must-see destinations to my bucket list. I felt a tinge of jealousy every time I saw a colleague’s headshot beside a travel tidbit or their byline under a grand travel story. Will I ever see my byline and thumbnail-sized photo in an inflight magazine?
That dream turned into reality in 2018 when I became one of the regular contributors to Cebu Pacific Air’s Smile Magazine.
For moany lifestyle writers, getting your byline in an inflight magazine is a dream gig. From 2018-2020, I got mine.
Even with the rise of digital entertainment, free albeit subpar WiFi on the plane, and online versions of airline magazines, the appeal of printed inflight magazines stayed strong pre-pandemic.
In their heyday, the likes of Air Canada’s En Route, Etihad’s Atlas, and Delta’s Sky could rival the Condé Nasts and Hearsts of the world. The best travel photographers were sent to the most breathtaking destinations to make sure that whatever is printed on the cover would evoke immediate wanderlust. Travel articles, from long form to the smallest sidebar tidbit, would go through several editors before getting published.
Inflight or onboard magazines proved that, at least in the airline industry, print is not dead. That era was frozen in time, even for just a few minutes to hours while you’re up in the air. Most welcomed the short, forced break from the digital frenzy. Instead of fidgeting with your phone and constantly refreshing your social media feed, you could just quietly read a magazine without distraction.
Did you know that it’s okay to take the inflight magazine home? It’s illegal to tamper with aircraft equipment and bring home items like the life jacket and safety information card, but you are allowed to take home the in-flight magazine.
The Changing of the Tide
And then COVID-19 happened. It was March 2020 and I had just submitted my crowd-sourced story where I tapped my backpacker friends to dish out travel tips. My editor informed me that the publishing had to be pushed to a later date. They couldn’t guarantee when.
We all thought—or hoped—that the pandemic would last only a few months. In the beginning of the Philippine lockdown, Smile Magazine produced a thinner issue. The once adventure-filled pages were replaced with health advisories, protocols, and maskinfographics. Eventually, Smile halted printing and focused on the online version.
It was the logical thing to do at the time. Planes were grounded and people hardly traveled, so who would read or advertise in inflight magazines? We didn’t know much about COVID-19 yet, so the airlines needed to prevent all possible methods of virus transmission onboard.
Several other titles gave last-ditch efforts to survive. American Way (American Airlines) printed their pandemic-era magazines with Biomaster, an antimicrobial process for treating paper. But that didn’t last long. The world’s biggest airline published its final issue in June 2021.
In an interview with USA Today, Dana Lawrence, American Airlines’ managing director of global brand marketing, explained that the decision was both environmental and practical. Before ceasing production, the magazine used two million pounds of paper to print four million copies each year. Their efforts are now focused on digital entertainment. Each Wi-Fi-equipped AA flight offers 600 movies and TV shows among other viewing options that passengers can stream to their electronic gadgets for free.
American Way wasn’t the first airline magazine to go fully digital. In March 2020, Delta announced that they have “streamlined its on-board cleaning process by removing non-essential items from seat-back pockets, including Sky magazine, until further notice.”
According to The Points Guy, Sky magazine, which had a pre-pandemic circulation of five million, already had plans to cease production as part of its sustainability efforts. COVID-19 just accelerated their retirement.
Flashback: When I was one of Smile Mag’s featured contributors
Alaska Airlines’ Alaska Beyond, which had a circulation of four million, became a full-fledged blog in March 2020. Southwest Airlines’ Southwest: The Magazine, Hong Kong Airlines’ +852 Magazine, and Bangkok Airways’ Fah Thai also published their final issues in the same month. Singapore Airlines’ SilverKris was reconceived as an all-digital platform, as with Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay Magazine.
Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) announced in February 2021 that their inflight magazine, Tsubasa Global Wings, will transition into a purely digital format, resulting in the reduction of approximately 1,540 tons of paper emissions per year.
“ANA has always focused on embracing the latest technology and this transition to digital format will increase flexibility for passengers and further supports our commitment to sustainability,” said Hideki Kunugi, Executive Vice President, Customer Experience of ANA. “This is really a win-win for passengers as the move to digital allows us to significantly increase our selection of media while increasing hygiene in lounges and aboard aircraft.”
British Airways’ High Life continued printing at the beginning of the pandemic but went all digital starting September 2020. Dozens of other titles ghosted their loyal passengers, disappearing from the seat back pockets and the interwebs without an official announcement or goodbye social media post.
Some airlines have scrapped the idea of a magazine altogether, digital or otherwise. Emirates’ Open Skies, which once boasted of reaching five million passengers a month, and believed “in print, in long-form journalism and in outstanding photography,” printed its last issue in April 2020. The magazine’s website hasn’t been updated since.
But with up to 5,000 channels of movies, TV shows, music, and games on Emirates’ award-winning inflight entertainment system and external plane cameras that let passengers see the world from 40,000 feet, would they notice what’s missing from the seat back pocket?
Up In The Air
Canada’s En Route magazine was in fighting spirits. Publisher Kelly Whitelock toldForbes in an August 2020 article: “At the end of the day people love their inflight magazines. I think there will be a place for it, we’re just not sure exactly what shape it will take.” In the pandemic, they went from monthly to printing every two months. Upon checking their official website, the last published issue was March-April 2022. Does that mean they’re going quarterly or scrapping the magazine altogether?
But hope is not lost for the nostalgic fans of inflight magazines. Hemispheres, the award-winning onboard magazine for United Airlines, and Kia Ora, Air New Zealand’s upscale magazine, continue to print monthly while keeping their online versions updated.
Qantas’ Travel Insider and Korean Air’s Morning Calm are also still printing.
For the rest of the commercial aviation world, will their inflight magazines make it to the final call?
March 2023 Update:
Cebu Pacific Air’s Smile Magazine is back on print! I’m also back as one of the regular contributors.