What's the best-read magazine in the skies? Whatever airlines put behind the barf bags. For carriers, in-flight mags are monopoly marketing at its rarest—an opportunity to seize the bleary eyeballs of captive, bored customers. But are they good reading? Fast Company went airborne to see.
American Way (American Airlines)
Our Take: This slick bimonthly features the "Celebrated Weekend," in which an interchangeable celebrity of the moment gives the lowdown on a favorite city. This works, or not, depending on your interest in, say, actor Mark Wahlberg and his deep knowledge of Boston.
Requisite Boss Letter: Gerard Arpey isn't just the CEO—he's a licensed pilot! In one column, he tells how a plane stops. Good stuff.
FC Rating: 3 (out of 4). A clever approach.
Readership: 2.8 million
Attache (US Airways)
Our Take: Attache's business columnist, Daniel Gross, covers with wit and depth such topics as the meaning of corporate colors. And Attache isn't afraid to have a little fun: Its October issue features a Wienermobile on the cover and a story about "nomadic advertising."
Requisite Boss Letter: David Siegel's column, larded with details of his employees' lives, reads like a political speech. That's not good.
FC Rating: 3.5. Slip this into your briefcase.
Readership: 1.5 million
Continental (Continental Airlines)
Our Take: This mag is as skimpy as most airline meals. The covers are buttoned down—Carly Fiorina smiling in a business suit—and the contents are similarly cautious. No Hollywood big shots here, which may be just fine for Continental's pin-striped fans.
Requisite Boss Letter: Gordon Bethune knows how to keep his comments short. If only he didn't write like someone in the PR department.
FC Rating: 2. Like a saltine: a little dry and thin.
Readership: 1.8 million
Hemispheres (United Airlines)
Our Take: Filled with surprises: distinctive abstract covers, impressive photos, and adventurous editorial. Hemispheres features faux Faulkner and Hemingway contests, a series of short stories called "Row 22, Seats A&B," and a top-flight golf columnist in A.G. Pollard Jr.
Requisite Boss Letter: Glenn F. Tilton could use a lesson in self-editing. But the guy cut his own pay last April, so we cut him slack.
FC Rating: 3.75. This is as good as it gets.
Readership: 1.7 million
Southwest Airlines Spirit (Southwest)
Our Take: The tone of this Texas-based magazine (published by the folks who do American Way) is a bit spicy, but it sticks to the standard formula of a city magazine (do we really need another hottest new chefs article?). Its business quizzes, however, did catch our eye.
Requisite Boss Letter: We love Colleen Barrett's bit: concise and personal. And dig her playful photo, smiling mischievously.
FC Rating: 2.75. A city mag aloft.
Readership: 2.8 million
A version of this article appeared in the February 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.