In-Flight Mags Biz Looks to Soar With New Image

With newsstand magazines grounded by the recession, in-flight magazine publishers see an opportunity to take off by turning around their category’s stale image.

One of the bigger contract publishers, Ink Publishing, has issued a new look and content for United’s monthly in-flight magazine Hemispheres under chief editor Aaron Gell, formerly of Radar and W. Another contract publisher, MSP Communications, relaunched Delta Air Lines’ Sky magazine in April and began selling it on newsstands for the first time.

Meanwhile, Ink is scouting traditional consumer magazines for talent as it looks to make upgrades across some of its other in-flight titles.

“The old model used to be that airlines would write a nice big fat check and say, go make me a pretty magazine,” said Michael Keating, group editorial director for Ink. “That didn’t necessarily make for a good magazine because it tended to be PR-, marketing-speak. We’ve been trying to change that.”

At Hemispheres, Gell said he’s trying to raise the journalistic quality of the monthly magazine. Examples in his debut June issue include news-driven stories on Miami’s Little Havana and a growing tourism industry inspired by the popularity of Slumdog Millionaire. “We’re not looking at it as a travel service magazine,” he said. “The idea is to put out a general interest magazine that has a global focus.”

In-flight magazines would seem to be in an enviable position, positioned in front of some of the country’s most affluent readers. Hemispheres readers, for example, had a median household income of $120,129, per Mediamark Research & Intelligence’s spring audience report.

Yet for all of 2008, Hemispheres’ ad pages declined 24 percent to 933, per Publishers Information Bureau. As part of an effort to reverse that decline, the magazine has kicked out dating service ads and multiple-page inserts that might turn off sought-after national advertisers. The title has scored a number of new clients for June, including Ritz Carlton, Hamilton Watches and Fidelity.

As for the recession’s dampening effect on air travel, Keating said he isn’t worried, noting, “The people who are still traveling still have money in their pockets.”