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The sky is not the limit

In-flight magazines are aiming to compete with the consumer glossies. But are their plans just hot air? Simon Edge reports
A riddle: it's a monthly magazine whose circulation is greater than that of Vanity Fair, Arena and Harpers & Queen combined. It's read by almost as many people as buy the Daily Mirror. You've probably read it yourself. Equally, you probably won't have heard of it.

Answer? High Life. It's the in-flight magazine of British Airways, which is neatly tucked in the seat pocket in front of each of the 2.3 million passengers who use the airline every month. If you've flown BA, chances are you have at least flicked through High Life to follow the route map, choose your movie or check the price of a bottle of Johnnie Walker.

With a readership whose only common interest is travel, in-flight magazines the world over (there are 31 in the US alone) walk a fine line. They are meant to personify the character of the airline they represent yet, invariably, they opt for editorial triteness. Features on leisure, entertainment and, of course, travel are determinedly middle of the road.

That doesn't mean people don't read them. Industry research group EDR says 75 per cent of Western European frequent flyers read airline titles (Lufthansa's Bordbuch boasts the most readers). And more than 40 per cent of passengers read half, or more, of its magazine.

This is good news for advertisers. "The typical person flying is a senior executive or a top professional - a very attractive audience for the advertiser," says Wale Adepoju, research manager at Spafax, a London in-flight services company. Adepoju reckons that the in-flight magazine market is now worth around $230m worldwide - chicken-feed compared with total advertising spend, but it is growing by around 20 per cent a year. Once the exclusive preserve of duty-free products, space is now being brought by the likes of Lloyds Bank, Standard Chartered, BMW and Toyota.

Rob Brookler of the World Airline Entertainment Association in California says one of the reasons for the growth is the development of multi-media packages, allowing advertisers access to in-flight video and audio channels as well as magazines. "Nevertheless, in-flight magazines are a staple of in-flight entertainment. Their quality has certainly risen," he says. Crucially, more advertising revenue means better editorial, and better editorial means more advertising revenue. "Twenty years ago, you would have had someone in the airline knocking out a newsletter. Now they're becoming consumer magazines, produced by people with impressive journalistic backgrounds," he adds.

One publication in particular is leading the way. Virgin Atlantic's quarterly Hot Air has just won, for the second year running, the WAEA's in-flight Magazine of the Year award. If all airline titles reflect the branding of the carrier, Hot Air's editor, Alex Finer, has it easier than most: Virgin Airlines is strongly identified with the metropolitan, thirtysomething market and the magazine is pitched accordingly. Hide the masthead and you could mistake this smooth glossy for Arena or Sky. It's another way of keeping ahead of the pack as competition for passengers grows and every possible advantage is sought.

If Finer, the launch editor of Esquire, has his way, Hot Air will also be the first in-flight title to drop from the skies and into the newsagents. True, a carrier with its own retail chain has a head-start, but Finer insists that Hot Air marks "a new generation" of contract publishing: "I treat it as if it were a newsstand publication. After all, it's competing with the copy of Tatler or Harpers that the passenger has brought on board, rather than with British Airways or Lufthansa. And in a softish market where advertising has traditionally been allowed to dominate, it has been relatively easy to put a Fleet Street stamp on it."

From the same stable as the Classic FM contract magazine, the title is genuinely a cut above the rest. Where other in-flight magazines offer inoffensive features on Goa or the Canaries, Hot Air has carried a less- than-lulling photo story on the killing fields of Bosnia. It has also carried items on drinking your own urine, features on DIY therapy and chunks from a warts-and-all biography of Frank Sinatra. And classy fashion spreads abound. Letting you know where editorial ends and advertising begins (not always the case with traditional in-flight reads), the duty-free and entertainment guides have been put under a separate cover.

"Virgin isn't trying to make money out of Hot Air," says Finer. "It's there so that people feel they have something for nothing, which they might otherwise have paid pounds 3 for." Still, Finer keeps an eye on the marketplace. He says BA, striving to freshen its image, is "in a flurry" over Hot Air's latest redesign.

The trouble is, thousands of feet up, befuddled with gin and breathing recycled air, the customer can't always appreciate the difference between High Life and Hot Air. They are simply killing time. Frank Minogue, a computer programmer from North London and self-confessed in-flight magazine junkie, can't recall either. "If Virgin's is so interesting, why haven't I brought it with me? I remember Iberia once had a good article about Zaragoza, which I'd been to, but Virgin? No..."