It soon will be harder to avoid advertising if you fly on one major carrier.
AirTran Airways is installing ads on the bottom of seat-back tray tables on all its planes.
Passengers have to keep the tray tables in their upright, locked position, during the beginning and end of their flights. That means an unimpeded view of the ads, which AirTran hopes will bring in millions of dollars in new revenue at a time when much of the industry has been reeling amid the economic slowdown.
AirTran expects the ads to be on its 138 planes within weeks. Mother Nature Network, offering a chance to win a Royal Caribbean cruise, is its first advertising partner.
US Airways has been placing ads on the tops of tray tables for years, but only on some planes.
The five biggest U.S. carriers lost a combined $3.2 billion in the first nine months of 2009. To cut costs and keep ticket prices from plunging, they are flying fewer flights and shuffling the planes they use. That has reduced flying to levels not seen since after the 9/11 attacks. AirTran is one of the few major carriers that has been profitable this year.
Airlines also have been trying to raise new revenue through ad-on fees for checking baggage, making a reservation over the phone or, on some carriers, asking for a better seat in coach.
Advertising onboard aircraft is not new. You see ads in the magazines in the seatback pockets and on airplane napkins. But placing the ads where passengers have little choice but to look at them is novel, and an enticing opportunity for AirTran, a unit of Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Holdings Inc.
"You see it for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the length of your flight," said Tad Hutcheson, AirTran's vice president of marketing and sales. "It gets a lot of impressions."
US Airways Group Inc., based in Tempe, Ariz., has fashioned ads to the tops of tray tables, so you don't see them unless you pull your tray down. In the past, Mercedes-Benz, Verizon, Microsoft and Ford have advertised on its planes, spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said.
"It's certainly not on every single airplane," Mohr said.
US Airways generates roughly $10 million a year from on-board advertising, but that includes napkins, cups and some buy-onboard products, Mohr said. The carrier does not break out revenue generated from seatback tray table advertising.
The 2 1/2 inch by 9 inch ads going on AirTran planes are easy to change out and are encased in a plastic covering. Planes are being retrofitted with the ads as they come in for overnight service.
AirTran is splitting the revenue from the advertising with OnBoard Media Group, based in Atlanta, which is installing the casing on the bottom of tray tables.
AirTran expects future ads on seat-back tray tables to range from travel-related companies, hotels and packaged goods. Hutcheson said AirTran has final approval on all content and would not allow ads for cigarette makers, alcohol and strip clubs.
Could the initiative backfire?
Aviation consultant Mark Kiefer of CRA International in Boston said passengers who already feel overloaded by commercial messages might be turned off by it.
"You could imagine a number of responses," he said.
But he said he doesn't think anyone would choose another airline as a result. And Kiefer noted that subway cars have carried such visible advertising for years.
"At some level, people should be used to seeing that kind of thing," he said.
Hutcheson said AirTran is not worried about turning off passengers with the new advertising.
"If we have a massive revolt of customers and they really complain, there is a clause in our contract where we can get out of the arrangement, but we don't anticipate that," he said.
Some airlines outside of the U.S. have already offered much of their fleet for ad space. Dublin-based low-cost carrier Ryanair, for example, solicits ads for its overhead bins, tray tables and aircraft exterior. Experts have been predicting that a growing number of U.S. carriers would look to advertising as a relatively untapped method to raise cash.