x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Airlines face a weighty problem

Airlines have been frantically scanning their planes for ways to reduce their load, and many have cut inflight magazines.

Airlines are reducing onboard weight to save on fuel.
Airlines are reducing onboard weight to save on fuel.

It was a rough summer for the inflight magazine industry. As oil prices climbed past US$140 a barrel, airlines began frantically scanning their planes for ways to reduce their load. More than a few seized upon the glossy magazines tucked in the seat pockets as a good place to start. The most attention grabbing weight loss plan of all reportedly belonged to Emirates, whose president, Tim Clark, was quoted as saying the airline planned to save a ton of weight on its A380s by dispensing with inflight publications. With many other carriers from Delta Airlines to Japan Airlines reducing the paper stock and sizes of their inflight magazines to cut fuel costs, Emirates's announcement seemed to herald the beginning of the end for the 75-year-old industry.

But reports of the death of Open Skies magazine, the name of the airline's flagship publication, turned out to be greatly exaggerated. "I can tell you as an absolute fact that there are no plans to scrap the magazine," said Ian Fairservice, the managing partner and group editor of Motivate Publishing, the Dubai-based company that publishes the magazine, along with 23 other publications. "It's been onboard every A380 that's left Dubai."

He suggested that Mr Clark's statements pertained to the airline's duty-free catalogue, which is published in-house. A spokesman for Emirates refused to confirm this directly, but left room for the possibility. "Emirates is constantly investigating innovative ways to reduce weight on its aircraft, which in turn reduces the amount of fuel required for each flight. A number of magazines are carried onboard Emirates. Opportunities for weight saving through paper weight reduction and paper elimination, without adversely impacting the passenger product, are being considered."

The spokesman added: "Emirates has no plans to discontinue its inflight magazine, Open Skies." But that does not mean things will not change. Since signing a five-year contract with Emirates last year to produce three of its magazines - the 200-page plus Open Skies as well as its Portfolio business-class magazine and tv&radio guide - Motivate has had several meetings with the airline to discuss ways to reduce the weight of its magazines. The first of these meetings, last December, resulted in a 37 per cent reduction of the magazine's weight in July, thanks to decreases in size and paper stock. Earlier this month, they met again to discuss further reductions.

"We have reviewed the content with our colleagues at Emirtes a view, with a view towards perhaps producing a smaller version of the magazine in 2009," Mr Fairservice said. Other Gulf carriers are asking for fewer concessions from their onboard publications. "There are no plans to change what we currently offer in terms of inflight magazines," said Leo Seaton, the head of media relations at Etihad Airways. "We do surveys and the customers love it. While trying to take weight off the aircraft is obviously a priority, the key is finding ways of doing it that don't impact the customer experience."

Mr Seaton said the airline had already saved US$11.5 million (Dh42.23m) so far this year with fuel-efficiency measures ranging from flight planning changes to the disposal of metal cutlery in favour of plastic. Chris Shaw, the director of The Media Factory, the Dubai-based publisher of Qatar Airways's Oryx magazine, said the company was "engaged in discussions" about reducing weight, but did not expect to witness the end of inflight magazines any time soon.

"Online is just another tool," he said. "I don't think it will ever be a case of the death of print. It's a comfort to the reader to be able to pick something up and engage with it." In fact, it was a desire to comfort frightened passengers that gave birth to the inflight magazine industry more than three quarters of a century ago. At first, they delivered fiction and travel articles, but soon airlines realised they had a free promotional vehicle on their hands, and began to fill them with promotional content.

It is only in the past 15 years however that they became sophisticated publications in their own right, said Dr Samir Husni, the head of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. "They have changed from mere propaganda for the airlines to a brand extension that tries to use articles and stories that subliminally will enhance the brand of an airline," he said. By the late 1980s, the advertising revenue of some of the glossiest publications rivalled ticket revenues, to the point that Japan Airlines reportedly removed seats out of some flights to make way for its 300-page behemoth of an inflight magazine, according to The Guardian.

Although scaled back from those days, inflight magazines today continue to be some of the most profitable publications around. The well-heeled, captive audience they can deliver to are an advertiser's dream. According to a 2006 Arbitron Inflight Media Study, airline magazine readers estimated they spent an average 31 minutes reading the publication, and 71 per cent agreed that because they were on a plane, they read the magazine more closely than they would a publication picked up somewhere else. The same year, a study conducted by Mediamark Research found the readership of United Airlines's Hemispheres magazine ranked number one in household income, at $119,588.

This sort of information allows publishers to charge top dollar for advertising space. Open Skies - which happens to be the UAE's most widely circulated stand-alone magazine at 63,901 copies as of June, according to BPA Worldwide, the US-based non-profit auditing organisation - charges $22,000 for an inside front cover. In contrast, Gulf Business, a Motivate Publishing product with nearly half the circulation aimed at a similar demographic, charges just $7,100.

Airlines and publishers share the formidable advertising revenues of inflight magazines, but publishers shoulder the production costs, making the arrangement a traditionally profitable one for airlines. In an internet-dominated age with print increasingly pinched from all sides, the one place ink and paper seemed safe was in the air - until oil began its dizzying ascent. The price increase would cause the global airline industry to post $5.2 billion in losses this year, based on an average crude oil price of $113 per barrel ($140 for jet fuel), the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced earlier this month. "The situation remains bleak," said Giovanni Bisignani, the director general and chief executive at IATA. "The toxic combination of high oil prices and falling demand continues to poison the industry's profitability."

Even the fast-growing Emirates had to scale back its profit forecast for the year by up to 75 per cent last month, citing the record-breaking rise in oil prices. Mike Boyd, the president of Boyd Group International, an airline consulting firm based in Colorado, said that even the more recent easing of oil prices would not change the larger trend of airlines seeking to reduce the amount of weight on their planes.

"Even if it drops down to $50 a barrel, they are not going to rescind some of these fees they have started," he said, referring to the extra charges some airlines have instituted for checked baggage. Nor will the magazines be guaranteed a place, he believes. "If it's an airline whose magazine is done in-house, it's probably safe. But if it is one that buys it from a contractor, they will probably go."

Amid this gloomy forecast, the one bright spot seems to be in sales of inflight entertainment systems, whose technology is rapidly advancing to include things like audio/video on demand, satellite radio and television, text messaging, internet access and - soon, industry experts say - mobile phone use. "IFE [inflight entertainment] hardware, in particular, is a growing segment of the industry, despite a slowdown in airline financial performance," said Liz Jones, the spokeswoman for the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA). "Magazine publishers still play a role, but the shifting of content from paper to the screen is already being seen on carriers such as Virgin America."

Emirates has clearly understood the importance of this trend. At the WAEA annual convention in California earlier this month, the airline walked off with the award for the best inflight entertainment and communications in its region, the Middle East and Africa. So when Motivate's five-year contract with Emirates runs out, will the magazine's content migrate to the screen? Even Spafax, the company that provides many of Emirates's IFE services, has its doubts. Although there is a waiting list for advertisers wanting space on Emirates's inflight television, the majority of advertising revenue still comes from print, according to Marie O'Neill, the development manager at the Dubai office of Spafax. "Print and traditional media are clearly stronger at the moment," she said, but added that the interactive possibilities of new inflight entertainment technology were creating increasingly attractive options for advertisers.

Dr Husni believes the issue goes beyond the formula of advertising revenue versus fuel costs. "To me the onboard magazines are an extension of the brand of the airline," he said. "There's nothing that will replace ink and paper." khagey@thenational.ae