The world of the in-flight magazine is a deceptive one. As the high-flying PR execs sit back in their seat and sip the complimentary champagne while flicking through the magazine in the seat back, it's hard to imagine the frantic restructuring that's going on in the complex corporate publishing world that produced the mag. But frantic it is.
In autumn last year, Virgin Atlantic's Hot Air editor Alex Finer left the title to take over the reigns at rival British Airways' High Life.
This move prompted a seismic shift in the market. John Brown Publishing recruited former Arena editor and TV presenter Ekow Eshun to head Hot Air and he has set about redesigning the title with his first quarterly issue out last month.
Meanwhile at Voyager, the British Midland magazine published by Mediamark, editor Howard Rombough picked up the Association of Publishing Agencies customer magazine editor of the year 2000 and promptly set about re-vamping the magazine. The Voyager relaunch coincides with the new corporate design for British Midland - as bmi british midland - and the start of international flights to the US from Manchester airport.
The in-flight audience is interesting for the canny PRO because the readership is obviously extremely upmarket. Indeed, all in-flight titles are skewed very heavily to ABs, with a strong male bias.
The first class and business flyers get the same in-flight magazine as the economy passengers and, especially on long-haul flights, they spend hours with the magazine on hand. That can present an opportunity, but it is an opportunity that comes with a couple of problems attached.
'The thing about in-flight magazines is that they have a captive audience,' explains Michael Oliviera-Salac, who runs fashion PR house Blow PR. 'Sometimes, if you've got a product in the magazine and it lies about for months, the magazine can lose its currency and regular flyers - who are often the most affluent market - can give up on reading it quite quickly.
'On the other hand, you do find that almost every passenger flicks through the in-flight magazine even if they don't actually read it,' he says.
Oliviera-Salac points out that many in-flight titles have up-front pages with product slots that fashion, beauty and gadget PROs can place products in. 'Then, when passengers get to airports, they can pop in to the duty free and pick the stuff up,' he explains. 'We've done some qualitative stuff on this and it really does work like that. It's almost interactive.'
Airline: Virgin Atlantic
Publisher: John Brown Publishing
'I got the job in a strange way. I was doing some work with John Brown's creative director Jeremy Leslie, and we were flying to America on Virgin, looking at Hot Air. I was saying how I thought the mag could be better then, when we landed, we heard that Alex Finer had resigned as editor to go to BA's High Life. Suddenly, on the flight home, I was pitching for the job.
'One of the things I liked about the idea of the job was the freedom the magazine gives me. Hot Air is quarterly and it's not bound by the restrictions of the newsstand so you can be more daring and adventurous with it. We want to make each issue into a special issue, rather than just another mag because it's time to bring one out. That's why the first issue for 2001 was a fashion special with Giselle on the cover.
'For our next issue we're doing our hot 100. It's 100 people, products, ideas and so on that we think are the most important in the world right now. We don't have the tyranny of the front cover celebrity having to persuade people to buy the magazine, so we've put actress Angelina Jolie on the cover but we've shot her in extreme close up rather than the conventional three-quarter length shot.
'We've also completely redesigned the magazine all the way through for this issue. The redesign extends through to a new logo and new typefaces for feature copy. We're introducing new sections and new section editors and we're revamping travel to include travel stories for the first time, as well as using it to profile some of Virgin's pilots and cabin crew to build a stronger link between passengers and staff. All the new sections mean we're looking for all sorts of things from the PR world.
'The problem I find with the PR industry, though, is that they think of their job first. They ring you with a product and they think you're going to be interested in it simply because they rang you. They don't think about the different needs and tastes of the titles they're ringing.
That makes them tricky to deal with sometimes.'
Airline: bmi british midland
Frequency: ten issues a year
'Speaking as a Canadian, I can say that the British in-flight magazines are the best in the world. All three titles on the three main airlines - bmi british midland, Virgin and BA - are really strong and that's because the British publishing industry is one of the best. We've taken that on and we've always set out to make Voyager a newsstand magazine that happens to be in the seat in front of you. That's the philosophy we've carried through on the relaunch.
'Part of the direction for the relaunch has been steered by customer research we did last summer. We found that readers didn't want a business or an IT magazine but rather a lifestyle title. It was also influenced by bmi british midland's corporate revamp, which positions the airline as celebrating Britishness in a global context. That's why the Union Jack has been introduced on to the tailplane and that's why we've introduced the British icons photo feature on the back page. This is a regular picture feature with about 50 words talking about something quintessentially British. This month it's chips and Marmite the next.
'We've now divided the rest of the magazine into four sections: the preview at the front, the features, the Viewpoint comment and the bmi pages at the back. The features should be effortless to read with shorter, one-page features and longer in-depth articles, and we'll have one political profile every issue. The new design is simple, clean and modern. It's by PPA designer of the year Michelle Goodwin and our art editor Anna Burton.
We've also got a short story every issue, with contributions from Will Self, Hanif Kureshi and Martin Amis. We've been very lucky with that.
'I'm not sure if all PROs appreciate the quality of the in-flight media.
Some of them think we're junk who'll take anything. I'm always happy to send out copies of the mag so that they can see what we're like. After that, they 'get' the title much more and we have a great relationship.
The only thing that I'd say is, don't send me press releases on e-mail, they get deleted.'