In-flight advertising isn't new. For years, travelers have been subjected to ads for hotels and rental car companies on ticket jackets. For almost as long, there have been ads shown alongside in-flight movies and other video entertainment. And really, what is an airline in-flight magazine if not a delivery vehicle for ads?
What's new—or will be—is the sheer quantity of in-flight advertising travelers will be exposed to. After a long period of slow growth, the volume of traveler-targeted ads is set to positively explode as airlines, ever desperate for new sources of ancillary revenue (the industry term for nuisance fees and income from non-core sources), look to advertising to pump up their bottom lines.
Europe's premier discounter, Ryanair, pioneered aggressive in-flight advertising, pasting ads on overhead bins, seatbacks, airsick bags, and on the sides of its jets.
So far, among U.S. airlines, US Airways has gone furthest in emulating the Ryanair model, displaying ads on tray tables and on airsick bags.
In the latest move in the direction of advertising overkill, five airlines—Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways—have signed up with marketing company Sojern to have ads published on the boarding passes online customers print on their home computers. The ads will be keyed to the traveler's destination, promoting local restaurants and shopping.
And there's more in the pipeline. According to Sojern's website: "Every day, businesses are discovering new ways of using the boarding pass to build stronger links to travelers ... promoting special events and offers that match each passenger's itinerary and preferences. And that's only the beginning.
"This same information could be used to customize more travel communications like airline confirmation emails and self-serve check-in kiosks. For travelers who opt in, messages could be programmed to reach those who prefer classical music over bluegrass, or Italian food versus Sushi."
As Sojern's vision suggests, the imminent surge in commercial messages won't just be onboard.
Depending on the results of a pilot program currently underway, the Transportation Security Administration may begin selling ads on the bins used at security checkpoints next month. And, according to USA Today, Dallas/Ft. Worth airport will begin displaying ads on its baggage carousels later this year.
In response to concerns that consumers will find the coming ad onslaught offensive, marketers will likely argue that in-flight advertising will be self-regulating. In other words, when the volume of advertising reaches the point where it becomes inefficient or offensive, it will naturally cease.
But if the airlines' nuisance fees are any indication, no such natural regulating mechanism exists. Consumers were fed up with nickel-and-diming long ago, and still airlines continue to impose new fees.
The airlines have proven that they can't be trusted to exercise taste, discretion, or judgment. Their ad agencies have a financial interest in creating and posting as many ads as possible, whatever the effect. So the only rational actors will be the advertisers themselves, who presumably won't choose to waste their ad budgets on campaigns that are not cost-effective.
In the meantime, Sojern's optimistic take on the future of in-flight advertising should serve as a warning: "Suddenly, the opportunities are as limitless as the big blue sky." Flyers, overwhelmed by ad noise, may soon find themselves begging for limits.