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World’s 12 best airline magazines for 2012
Between the puke bag and the duty-free brochure, in-flight magazines are a glossy guarantee in every seat-back pocket. But which are worth the read?
If you fly, you know them. Maybe you even love them.
In-flight magazines can be notorious for stodgy stories, bad puns and breathless travel fluff, never mind the sudoku that's been half filled in already.
These days, though, at least a few of these print-media warhorses are trying to raise their game.
Earlier this year, we pored over issues of as many airline mags as we could get our hands on to build the ultimate airborne reading list. Our top dozen for 2012:
12. Ryanair Magazine (Ireland)
Basics: From delightfully cheesy covers (that girl in the pink dress really wants you to drink that wine) to antic “two-minute” city guides, the Irish cheap-flight empire knows its audience of travel-mad hedonists.
Perfect reader: A maturing lager lad with a decade-old soccer tattoo. He’s graduated to pricey cocktails and museums, but still channels his Viking ancestors come stag time in Tallinn.
Words: Words? Oh, right. No pseudo-literary features here. Ryanair speaks in the voice of a wised-up pal with a pint in hand.
Look: Meet Ornella, a Ryanair cabin crew member featured on a two-page spread, in her skivvies. She’s got her right thumb strategically hooked in her underpants, in fact. It’s for charity.
Gold star: Need to know the best hotel in Kaunas? Ryanair has your back.
Black mark: Journalism? Eh, don’t bother.
Verdict: A little dumb, a little demented, but lots of fun.
11. Go (AirTran, United States)
Basics: In-flight magazine of the Orlando/Atlanta-based budget carrier operated by Southwest Airlines, Go keeps going with its well-designed, not-much-nonsense approach.
Perfect reader: A road warrior from Marietta, Georgia, on his way to a B-tier convention in Kansas City. He wishes he were headed for an eco-spa in Tulum.
Words: Go serves up smart travel info, with a little typical in-flight hype. That spa in Tulum provides the “ultimate decadence,” of course. But a recent issue also includes a witty guide to Vegas on US$25 a day and lots of precise tips.
Look: Graphic mini-stories in the magazine’s opening section dissect a staggering number of destinations, products and events.
Gold star: Every mag does “by the numbers” stories, but Go’s city stats pages make eye-catching intros to AirTran destinations. It’s never been colder than 5 C in Key West? Weird. Cool. Book the ticket.
Black mark: Chunky “business” features are forehead-to-tabletop obvious. Cloud computing. Heard of it?
Verdict: At its best, Go makes flying cheap seem quite fun.
10/9. Tie: Holland Herald (KLM, Netherlands) and Lufthansa Magazin (Germany)
Basics: These northern European titles are deadlocked at good but not great.
Perfect reader: A smart EU bureaucrat who just took her Ambien (Holland Herald); the love child of Angela Merkel and David Hasselhoff (Magazin).
Words: Herald stands out with some highbrow moves, like the recent “Work” issue’s interview with pop philosopher Alain de Botton, but often settles for travel cliché. Chengdu’s food scene is both “dazzling” and “idyllic”; Vienna, “fit for an emperor.”
Magazin’ssubject mix is agreeably goofy and somehow very German -- the nation’s best table tennis player; a middle-aged hotel kingpin displaying his hirsute chest; big, nerdy sections on aircraft.
Look: Great photos in the Herald, while Magazin aims for hip retro-minimalism (someone’s been reading Monocle).
Gold star: Both offer solid service in bright, informative tones.
Black mark: Herald’s layout is a hodgepodge, and Magazin mostly looks as bland as its name.
Verdict: Two magazines that get the job done without being too exciting.
Like their home countries? We didn’t say that.
8. Qantas The Australian Way(Australia)
Basics: Big, glossy, bold, brassy
Perfect reader: Every polite yet rambunctious Australian you’ve ever met.
Words: The focus is almost exclusively on luxe travel, which the magazine delivers with hearty self-confidence, imparting both its smartest tips (how to find the hidden glories the Mexican state of Chihuahua) and dumbest jokes (that same story’s sub-head: “Small dog, big destination”).
Look: The overall design could use renovation, but sprawling photos of amazing Down Under landscapes are an unbeatable trump card.
Gold star: The voluminous travel content is packed with actionable info.
Black mark: Cheese. They can’t resist a headline pun (golf feature: “Fairways to Heaven;” coastal destination profile: “Life’s a Beach”).
Final verdict: Like a chatty, informed seatmate who’s had a cocktail or two.
7. Smile(Cebu Pacific, Philippines)
Basics: What? Who? We didn’t see this chipper little underdog coming either, but Smile’s youthful (and authentically Filipino) charm won us over.
Perfect reader: A fresh-faced backpacker as excited about checking out Kalibo by tricycle as s/he is about navigating the markets of Saigon.
Words: No great prose, but zest for adventure prevails. In a recent issue, a phrase-based Vietnam guide, a two-woman Southeast Asia travelogue and an alluring snapshot of Cebuano cuisine all had us reaching for our passports.
Look: Nothing special, but frequent portraits of ordinary people having a good time echo the magazine’s spontaneous, low-key voice.
Gold star: Capsule guides to every city on the airline’s network include slang and breakfast tips from locals.
Black mark: The layout smacks of a U.S. teen magazine.
Final verdict: Smile proves in-flights don’t need to pretend to be Esquire or The Economist -- just to capture the spirit of the places they serve.
Delta? Air Canada? Air New Zealand? Click to the next page to see which airline carries the top in-flight magazine.
6. Voyager (British Midland International, United Kingdom)
Basics: A brainy-for-in-flight effort from one of Britain’s second-tier airlines.
Perfect reader: He wears a tweed jacket, semi-ironically. So does she.
Words: A smart and cosmopolitan mix of stories, with a strong emphasis on culture. A recent issue included interviews with Ewan McGregor and hot London chefs, and in-depth looks at Marrakech and Casablanca.
Look: Colorful, original, sharply presented photos.
Gold star: The short stories up front are unusually compelling -- looks at current books, art and video games that would be at home in Wired.
Black mark: That Marrakech travelogue almost got Voyager completely disqualified with reference to a “not in Kansas moment.” And a guide to Irish pubs in Moscow? Is this 1996?
Final verdict: Voyager is a pleasure to read and look at, but needs to police the clichés to crack our top five.
5. Indwe (SA Express, South Africa)
Basics: Like Smile, this relative unknown charmed us by imparting a sense of real life in its home territory.
Perfect reader: A first-time visitor in South Africa, ready to fall in love with the country.
Words: Patriotism resounds. A recent issue featured insightful-feeling stories on Soweto, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and South Africa’s signature textile.
Look: Vivid photographs jump out of bland layouts.
Gold star: Any in-flight that runs a feature on climate change deserves a high-five for some journalistic courage.
Black mark: The personality profiles are a little too local to resonate outside the market. Who are these people?
Final verdict: Nothing fancy, but proves that vivacious writing and photography can carry the day.
4. Sky (Delta, United States)
Basics: Like a proficient American football team, Sky mostly sticks to blocking-and-tackling basics, but occasionally unleashes an entertaining long bomb.
Perfect reader: She’s on a two-leg transcontinental trip and finished off her Vanity Fair on the first flight.
Words: Travel clunkers aside (“Singapore is changing, and changing quickly…”), Sky mostlydodges in-flight cliché in favor of mature, informative prose.
Look: A layout style cribbed from a decade-old copy of Maxim jams photos, graphics and text amid junky-looking ads.
Gold star: Culturally aware and -- by in-flight standards -- ambitious features. The March 2012 issue focused on film provides spunky, timely interviews with the "Mad Men" costume designer and "Hunger Games" star and cover subject Jennifer Lawrence.
Black mark: After midway, the mag becomes a jumble of Spanish translations, staid business articles and on-board purchase menus.
Final verdict: Sky isn’t going to get many readers to carry it off the plane, but it knows what’s going on and, at its best, figures readers do, too.
3. KiaOra (Air New Zealand)
Basics: Fun, energetic, colorful with an element of cheek.
Perfect reader: The kind of passenger a lesser in-flight would be tempted to describe as a “culture vulture.”
Words: The story selection is essentially an up-market lifestyle catalog. Nothing meaty, but cheerful and breezy.
Look: Too many stale stock photos. The more original shots, however, can be witty and striking.
Gold star: KiaOra hits its stride in its deep sections about fashion, culture, design and food.
Black mark: The magazine’s design doesn’t live up to its own go-go aspirations. Stuck between generations, it’s sometimes cool, sometimes clunky.
Final verdict: Like NZ itself, KiaOra is small, but fun and, often as not, very impressive.
2. Open Skies (Emirates, United Arab Emirates)
Basics: Savvy, graphic, editorially ambitious and giving every impression of oozing cash, this very Brit-inflected mag wings around most of the competition.
Perfect reader: Speaks in a perfect but placeless accent: part-London, part-New York, part-Dubai luxury high-rise. Has not had a fixed address in years.
Words: Nick Hornby on soccer? Check. Reviews of US$1,200 hotel rooms? Check. Financial Times columnists? Check. Hipster-brainy book reviews? Re-purposed New Yorker features? Check. Open Skies gets what it wants.
Look: Completely eschewing traditional cover lines, the art-mag-style covers are a little show-offy and often obscure (we get it, Open Skies: you’re different). Then again, bold, modernist layouts really are different. Recent issues carried photo essays on Russia’s space program and London’s underworld.
Gold star: Rare among in-flights, this magazine isn’t afraid to show swaggering personality with a few raffish touches of attitude and genuine intellect. Well played, old boy.
Black mark: What, you say your magazine is based in the desert somewhere? Could have fooled us -- Open Skies seems determined to ignore its Emirates' home. And, really, those covers need a massive overhaul.
Final verdict: Not every in-flight serves the same readership, but we wish they all had Open Skies’s self-confidence and smarts.
1. En Route (Air Canada)
Basics: An almost ridiculously tricked-out version of the in-flight concept, Air Canada’s mag is oversized, beautifully designed, generally well written and essentially snickering at the competition.
Perfect reader: Someone predisposed to considering Canada the smartest, nicest, best-run country on earth (i.e., probably an American or Brit).
Words: Departing from the typical in-flight “general interest” formula, En Route is about travel. Period.
Just about every story is about where to go, how to get there and what to eat or drink on arrival. And everything is in both English and French. Sacre something!
Look: Just about every other mag on this list could learn something from En Route’s classy, of-the-moment design and fantastic original photography.
Gold star: Balances breezy globalism (the issues we reviewed visited Bellingham, Washington, the Black Forest, Patagonia and seemingly everywhere else), and that Canadian thing (stories about the Northwest Territories, beer-drinking hockey players).
Black mark: The sales jobs for Air Canada vacation packages that take over about two-thirds of the way through are a letdown.
Final verdict: Styles and subjects could differ, but this is basically what an in-flight could (and should) be.
Article first published May 2012, updated December 2012