If you've flown in the last year or so, you may have noticed that the airline seatback magazines are largely gone; most disappeared a year ago as airlines rushed to deal with two imperatives: Save money while almost no one was flying and get rid of almost anything that needed to be scrubbed down to sanitize the plane.
Now that we know that surface transmission is less likely than thought and now that the passengers are coming back, will the magazines re-appear? Yes for some, and no for most, continuing a trend that had been well underway even before the pandemic.
Delta's Sky was the first to go; a spokesperson explained that not only for the reasons above, but “Since then, we have found a small but significant reduction in carbon emissions through the removal of the print magazine from our flights and have made the decision to retire the publication." Southwest and Alaska had also made pre-pandemic decisions, and moved them up.
Most airline magazines are actually produced by outside editorial companies for the airlines. Ink Global produces United's Hemispheres, which will return eventually, and AA's American Way, the only U.S. inflight magazine that never stopped paper publication. But while both will continue for now, the future is far from clear because the need for magazines has shifted sharply. And Ink Global is ready for that: It's just taken over a major chunk of the airport TV network business from CNN.
Several factors have helped dropping the mags look like good business sense for the airlines. Back in the days before smartphones, tablets and full-on seatback entertainment, the magazine (and the late lamented SkyMall) provided a captive audience with something to read, and an opportunity for advertisers to hold their attention, including with ads for travel-oriented merchandise and high-end restaurants at the next destination.
But technology gave flyers far more interesting things to read or watch. Much of the non-advertising editorial content was focused on destinations the airlines served, but that could now be played as videos. The books served as a place for airport information, movies being shown, meal menus and other airline information—and who needs a glossy magazine for that when it's all built into a browser and more up-to-date.
And when the passengers stop spending so much time on the magazines, if any at all, it's a signal to advertisers that it may no longer be a profitable medium for their ads. That's what happened to SkyMall. And since the airlines have always counted on advertising to pay the costs of the magazine operation, a continued drop in ad revenue could well doom the remaining magazines.