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Airlines serve ads to a captive audience

As if ads in public bathrooms and elevators aren't enough, some airlines are looking at placing them all over the cabin, from tray tables and window shades to overhead bins and bulkheads.

Forget the discreet ad on the ticket jacket. The plane's cabin, once a sanctuary from commercialism, is being invaded by advertisers, whom airlines see as another source of revenue amid high fuel costs and a slumping economy.

Even ad space on airsickness bags and soap dispensers is now seen as fair game -- at least by smaller carriers so far -- at the right price.

"It's the next thing," said Terry Trippler, an aviation consultant who runs the travel advisory website tripplertravel.com. "I could picture an airplane looking like a NASCAR," racing stock cars that are often laden with sponsors' logos. "It's not out of the question that we may one day see a Target logo on the nose."

Last week, Spirit Airlines Inc., a low-cost carrier based in Miramar, Fla., took onboard advertising to another level as it began placing ads paid by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism on overhead bins, on seat-back trays and along the cabin walls. The ads on the bins, for instance, show symbols of island activities including fishing tackle, a pair of flip-flops and snorkels.

The ads, promoting travel to the Bahamas, will be featured on the carrier's entire fleet of 28 planes for two months before other advertisers take over the space. The airline, which is expected to fly 7.8 million passengers this year, flies daily from Los Angeles to Detroit and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The carrier is charging $5,000 to $2 million, depending on the size of the ad and how long it stays on the planes. The overhead bin and tray ads, which are like decals that can be replaced in about two hours, would appear on all 28 planes in the fleet.

"We could have someone else do napkins or the drink cart," said Misty Pinson, the airline's spokeswoman. "We're talking about everything and anything, from drinking cups and soap dispensers to potentially even advertising on barf bags. You'll be surprised how many people take those with them."

Airlines have had advertising on planes before, but they were typically within the carrier's magazine or shown before an in-flight movie or television show. But Ireland's trend-setting Ryanair Holdings began plastering ads all over its cabins several years ago to offset the low fares it was charging passengers.

The trend was slow to catch on in the U.S. until US Airways Group Inc. began placing ads on tray tables and selling space on cocktail napkins. The Mesa, Ariz., airline said the so-called onboard ancillary ads now generate about $20 million a year.

Skybus Airlines, which went out of business this year, even sold space on its flight attendants' uniforms. It also was one of the first to place an ad on the outside of the plane.

But some larger airlines balk at placing ads in the cabin. Both American Airlines and United Airlines, two of the largest in the world, said they had no plans to expand in-flight advertising.

"The only advertising customers will see onboard is during the in-flight entertainment and in the magazine," said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski Janikowski.

Some airlines are worried about a passenger backlash. Six hours for a transcontinental trip is a long time to be inundated by advertising with no way to escape.

"They're sensitive to not putting too much in front of the passenger. They don't want to trash up the interior of the aircraft," said John Caldwell, managing partner with Airline Advertising Bureau Inc., which sells ads that run during in-flight entertainment.

"Passengers could feel like they are being taken advantage of by having too much crammed down their throats," he said.

But Spirit executives said few passengers had complained so far.

"Passengers that fly with Spirit have come to love the low fares we offer, and this is a way to offer those fares in tough economic times," Pinson said. "They say that if this is a way to keep airfares low, they're all for it."


Peter Pae, Los Angeles Times. October 3, 2008

Copyright © 2008 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.