Saturday, January 28, 2012

Makeover at 35,000 Feet

Airlines ain't what they used to be. No longer the most elegant and fastest way to get from place to place, planes have become buses in the sky. Cabins have been redesigned to maximize every inch, everything besides the actual seat costs extra and routes have been reduced so it takes multiple stops to get from place to place. In fact, when you do the calculus of how much time and hassle it takes to get to and through the airport, take the actual flight, then get through traffic to your final destination, spending quality time on I95 is looking better and better.

Then again, airline passengers ain't what they used to be either. Blame it on the People Express's of yore or the Jet Blue's of now, but these days everybody flies. No longer a practice of just the 1%, the rest of us 99% are winging our way here and there in our cargo shorts and flip flops, ears stuffed with iPods, toting bags from McDonalds to go with our last "free" perk on board, a plastic glass of Coke. Or to paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the passenger and he is us.

Still, if you're sitting on a plane, there are a few assumptions one can make. One, you have enough money in your pocket to fly, not the cheapest way to get from place to place. Two, be it business or pleasure, you're going somewhere. And three, you have a minimum of an hour confined to a finite space with a limited amount of options to distract you. Enter the airline magazine.

These glossy publications target you, the traveling public. A cross between "People," "Vanity Fair" and "The Idiot's Guide to Flying," they are a refuge for many, if only because they don't sport an on-off switch. That's because even if you usually have your iWhatever at your fingertips, and can't remember the last time you paged through an actual paper publication, below 10,000 feet they are one of the few readily available sources of distraction permitted by FAA regulations.

So what's in them? Mostly what you'd expect. An article on things to do in San Antonio. An interview with actor Ewan McGregor. A roundup of the latest electronic gadgets to keep you amused. All this along with more granular stuff, such as route maps, listings of pay-as-you-go snacks and airport gate layouts. All this makes sense, considering the audience and the locale. And then there are the ads.

It's not that today's airline passengers don't have disposable income. It's just strange what advertisers think they'll dispose it on. To be sure, there are ads for high end jewelry and watches, vacation destinations and travel services, the kinds of things to which travelers might take a shine. But there're also a rather large number of come-ons that play to the notion that the people sitting in the seats are vain, insecure, have bad joints and are lonely. As a frequent flyer I resemble, uh, I mean resent, those assumptions.

There are numerous ads for cosmetic dentistry, hair replacement and plastic surgery. You also find specialized medical facilities focusing on joint replacement, spine surgery and treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. And they are rounded out by ones for personalized dating services, with names like "It's Just Lunch" and "Selective Search." Now, I'm sure all are run by upstanding and skilled professionals. And if you have issues with any of those areas you shouldn't close your eyes to possible solutions. But speaking solely for myself, if I'm in need of any of these things, I'm far more likely to do a bit of research with friends, family and others who have been there and done that, as opposed to making an impulse buy based on a four color glossy: "Wow! I want some vertebrae work just like that! And they have concierge service, too!"

Still, I assume that those paying to run these blurbs have gotten at least some success from their investment, or you wouldn't see them month after month. I can only conclude that something happens to the consumer part of your brain when you get on an airplane. After all, that SkyMall catalog next to the magazine has been selling collectable reproductions of Yoda for 30 years, and he's still in there. So somebody must be buying. Or as Yoda himself might put it, "Money spent strangely, people do on planes."


Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders why all the cosmetic dentists who advertise onboard seem to be from Texas. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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