In the first issue of American Airlines’ in-flight magazine, flight attendants were called stewardesses and business travelers were pitched family fares offering half-price tickets for “your wife.”
It was 1966.
The cover story in the latest issue of American Way: LGBTQ neighborhoods across the country.
The changes in the seatback pocket staple reflect how times have changed in the past 50 years.
But perhaps no sign of the times is more telling than this: the June issue of American Way will be the airline’s last.
American is ceasing publication of what it calls the industry’s longest continually published in-flight magazine, joining Delta and Southwest, which stopped publishing their magazines during the pandemic and decided against bringing them back. American continued publishing during the pandemic but added an “antimicrobial process,” which it touts on the upper right hand corner of the cover.
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Why are airlines no longer offering in-flight magazines?
Dana Lawrence, American’s managing director of global brand marketing, said airlines are eliminating magazines due in large part to travelers’ changing tastes for in-flight entertainment and airlines’ increasingly long lineup of free options, much of it powered by in-flight Wi-Fi.
American now offers 600 movies and television shows and recently added a new lifestyle channel that includes free language lessons from Rosetta Stone. Passengers can stream them to their smartphones, tablets, laptops and other electronic devices for free.
“It’s really just keeping up with our customers and their preferences and how we can offer them the most content,” Lawrence said.
At the same time, the popular travel information passengers sought out at the back of the magazine – airport maps, in-flight food and drink menus, movie listings and more – are now available on airlines’ websites, mobile apps and, in the case of airlines offering seatback screens, the seat in front of them.
Lawrence said the move will play a “small role” in helping the environment, as it uses 2 million pounds of paper for the 4 million copies printed each year – a benefit also touted by other airlines.
Veteran travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research in San Francisco, said in-flight magazines overstayed their welcome on planes.
“These are relics from the decades past that probably should have been killed off a long time ago or at least digitized,” he said.
Harteveldt, a former airline executive whose responsibilities at TWA included oversight of the in-flight magazine, said interest in thumbing through the magazines fell off when travelers started loading books, movies and TV shows onto their phones, tablets or laptops or spent the flight tuning into the airline’s entertainment options. Advertiser interest fell off as a result, he said.
“American Way was an institution,” he said. “But … I don’t think frequent travelers or infrequent travelers will notice or really care to any great degree if the magazine disappears. And certainly nobody ever chose an airline because of the in-flight magazine.”
The CEO of in-flight magazine publisher Ink Global, the London-based travel media company that has published American Way for six years and publishes United’s magazine, among others, doesn’t agree. He said American Way has inspired millions of American’s passengers and “will be missed.”
“Although American is ending American Way, many of our other airline partners are doubling down on inspiring travel-focused customer communication,” Michael Keating said, citing United’s decision to put Hemispheres magazine back on its planes this month and Virgin Atlantic’s plans to bring its magazine back in September.
From 22-bage booklet to 122-page monthly magazine
American’s in-flight magazine started as a 22-page booklet called The American Way in early 1966 and started as an annual publication.
The first issue included a welcome note from American Airlines President Marion Sadler.
“We’re delighted to welcome you aboard and we hope this booklet will add to the pleasure of your trip,” he said. “Here you’ll discover in words, pictures and artwork those special qualities of excellence that continue to distinguish American Airlines’ people, services and equipment as the finest in the industry.”
The magazine eventually became a monthly publication, serving as many as 16 million passengers before the pandemic decimated travel.
American Way had a couple pop culture moments. In 2005, the magazine got a shoutout the season finale of the first season of “The Office.”
Character Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, bragged that he subscribed to the in-flight magazine (and to USA TODAY).
“Some great articles in there,” he cracked in reference to the magazine. “They did this great profile last month of (“Everybody Loves Raymond’ actress) Doris Roberts and where she likes to eat when she’s in Phoenix. Illuminating.”
(American said a 2005 American Way article did feature Terry Bradshaw and where he likes to eat in Phoenix.)
A dozen years later, “The Office” actress Mindy Kaling referenced the episode when she landed on the cover of the magazine.
“Proud to grace the cover of Michael Scott’s favorite magazine, American Way,” she said in a Twitter post.
The satirical publication The Onion took a crack at American Way in 2012, when American Airlines was a year into its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. (The airline emerged from Chapter 11 in 2013 via a merger with US Airways.)
The article said American planned to quit the flight business to focus on the magazine and that then-American CEO Thomas Horton was becoming editor-in-chief of American Way.
“Our first love is and always has been our travel and lifestyle magazine—in fact, distributing American Way is the reason we first got into air travel back in 1930,” the spoof said. “Sadly, the publishing industry is changing, and we can no longer afford to use the seat-back pockets of a major international airline to maintain our print circulation. It’s simply not a cost effective way to run our magazine.”