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On The Road - Captive Audience for Advertising

Say what you will about air travel, but an airplane is still that rare public place where you remain relatively insulated from barrages of advertising.

Wait till next year, though. Airlines are gearing up to bring a lot more advertising to us in 2004 in the confines of our airplane seats.

The most recent innovation in in-flight advertising comes from America West Airlines, the rapidly expanding low-fare carrier based in Tempe, Ariz. Earlier this month, America West announced that it was offering "tray-table advertising, a new and innovative advertising medium" that "provides customers a novel opportunity to learn about the products and services offered by quality, forward-thinking advertisers."

That's right, they've printed ads directly onto the tray tables.

Hold off on those e-mail messages, please. I am quite aware that if you shift your eyes a bit on the page you are reading you will likely encounter advertising. But until recently, you haven't encountered much of it inside an airplane cabin.

Still, I suppose, learning about "products and services" in the air sounds a lot more virtuous than simply staring morosely at a gin and tonic on a blank tray table and wondering if the fat guy wedged into the aisle seat beside you is going to fall asleep on your shoulder.

The provider of tray-table advertising is a Las Vegas company called SkyMedia International. Nick Pajic, SkyMedia's president, says he was negotiating with other major airlines on tray-table advertising and its potential. "With an average domestic flight time of 2.5 hours," Mr. Pajic said, "our advertisers will be able to achieve a level of penetration, impact and recall unmatched by virtually any other medium."

If you're envisioning airplane cabin advertising, you probably should banish any old images of battered subway cars with posters for bunion doctors and lawyers seeking accident victims. America West stresses that its tray-table ads are "high quality" and "aesthetically pleasing." The initial advertiser lineup includes Mercedes-Benz USA, Bank of America and the History Channel, America West says.

Now that someone has succeeded in putting ads on tray tables, can other parts of the airplane be far behind? Of course not. Advent Advertising, a company based in Missouri, said it planned to introduce Advent Airads, "a revolutionary product that adds to the stylish, elegant interior design of today's aircraft."

That's right, they're talking about putting ads on the overhead storage bins too. "Never before have advertisers been so up close and personal with such a desirably affluent audience," Marck B. de Lautour, the company's marketing director, said in a news release. "Overhead storage bins are among the most hotly coveted pieces of real estate on commercial airlines," he added.

In an e-mail reply to a request for further comment, Mr. de Lautour said he did not want to discuss the matter in any detail just yet. "In-flight advertising, in various new forms, will be a reality very soon," he said, adding that Advent Advertising is talking to various airlines and "will be ready for a comprehensive product launch very soon."

Meanwhile, many airlines are forming partnerships with advertisers whose messages are being threaded into in-flight entertainment programs as outright commercials or, increasingly, in what are being billed as "special-interest programming" (what you and I might call "infomercials"). More on that next year.

One thing is for certain, though. Advertisers will be far more active inside the airplane in 2004 as airlines look for new ways to increase revenue. As they used to say in televisionland, stay tuned.


Joe Sharkey, The New York Times. December 23, 2003

Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.