The iPad era is wreaking havoc in airlines’ seat-back pockets.

With fliers no longer always required to turn off phones and tablets during takeoff and landing, they’re glued to electronic devices for longer than ever, leaving little downtime for leafing through a magazine.

As carriers from American Airlines Group Inc. to Air France-KLM Group vie for fleeting attention spans of hundreds of millions of passengers, they’re turning to writers like novelist Dana Vachon and New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones to pen articles, producing glossy photo spreads and introducing digital editions. Whatever the format, the magazines are a way to connect with passengers and build an airline’s brand — and the advertising revenue helps, too.

“Onboard magazines are living print-dinosaurs,” said René Steinhaus, an aviation expert at consultant A.T. Kearney in Berlin. “While a lot of printed media disappeared in the last few years, onboard magazines are still ‘alive.’ They are a phenomenon.”

The challenge is to make the publications attractive and entertaining enough that passengers will actually open them. That means wooing the likes of Paige Wilson.

On her twice-weekly flights from New York to Boston for work over the past four months, Wilson, 23, said she occasionally skims the pages of in-flight magazines, usually while eating a bagel before turning on her personal electronic device so she can chip away at work for her consulting firm.

Huge Reach

“When I’m flying on the actual plane itself, I’m usually on my tablet or my laptop,” Wilson said in a telephone interview. “That’s been my main distraction.”

In theory, airline passengers trapped on planes for hours at a time represent a lucrative audience for advertisers, Steinhaus said.

“If a large carrier has 100 million customers per year, and if just 10 percent of that read the magazine, that’s 10 million clients for an advertiser. That’s huge reach,” Steinhaus said in a telephone interview.

Emirates relaunched its magazine, Open Skies, in January and plans to increase the print run by 5 percent to keep up with a fleet expansion. Changes include a focus on strong photography, a mix of short stories and long articles, and allowing readers to download a digital copy in addition to the print version.

“You can read an article in the magazine about a hotel then get online and make a hotel booking,” said Patrick Brannelly, vice president of passenger communications for the Dubai-based carrier. “They complement each other.” Brannelly said Emirates’ onboard magazine has “healthy sales” and “more than covers itself” in terms of costs. The profit it generates is “not inconsiderable,” he said. “We think it has many years ahead of it and will evolve further.”

New Platforms

The new platforms are helping to attract advertisers who want to be promoted digitally and in print, according to Raymond Girard, president of content marketing for Spafax. The London- based agency produces AirCanada’s enRoute and Royal Jordanian’s Royal Wings, among others.

Publishers of print editions must balance between editorial content that interests travelers while still showcasing the airline and its advertisers, according to Girard. Passengers need to feel more like readers, not just customers, he said.

“If they feel they’re being oversold to, if they feel they’re reading a 160-page catalog for the airline’s products and services, I think you’re losing an opportunity to really connect with them,” Girard said in a telephone interview from Toronto.

Luxury Advertising

Air France uses its two in-flight magazines to focus on luxury as a way to distinguish its brand from upstarts. Air France Madame, started in 1986 as a women’s addition to Air France Magazine, taps into a rich vein of advertising from high- end fashion houses and sees itself among peers like Vogue and Elle. In 2013 Air France overhauled its publications, tapping into the literary industry for prize-winning writers like David Foenkinos and Daniel Picouly to write short novels specifically for the flagship magazine, which also focuses on food and sports.

“We put a lot of energy into our in-flight magazine,” said Jean Charles Tréhan, vice president of corporate communications, who oversees the publications. “It’s a good way of supporting the brand image of Air France.”

The airline has never considered giving up the glossy paper versions even as it’s making them available online.

Luxury Business

“Studies show that people enjoy the experience on paper. There will always be a paper magazine. We’re in the business of providing luxury,” Tréhan said in an interview.

American Airlines recently revamped its four-decade-old magazine, which reaches 193 million people annually, by hiring London-based media company Ink Global. The overhauled American Way appeared last month with a new layout, features and a redesigned cover featuring rock band Foo Fighters.

“It continues to be an important part of our marketing strategy,” Fernand Fernandez, vice president for American’s global marketing, said in an e-mailed statement.

United Airlines, whose two publications Hemispheres and Rhapsody reach 140 million passengers a year, has also used Ink to help spiff up its product. Since 2009, Ink has hired writers like New York Times columnist David Carr and essayist Sloan Crosley to lend some heft to Hemispheres and started chasing luxury advertisers.

Even as in-flight magazines go upscale, they also serve an important basic function for many people.

“The unsung hero of the in-flight magazine is that fleet page and the route map,” Spafax’s Girard said.

While some travelers might lament the disappearance of SkyMall, the quirky, in-flight shopping catalog that shared seat-pocket real estate with airline magazines and filed for bankruptcy protection last month, they can rest easy that the crossword puzzle will still be there.

“Magazines will stay around for quite some time and electronic onboard platforms will come on top,” A.T. Kearney’s Steinhaus said. “We may see a point in time when a printed magazine may actually become something special, just like a personal letter on paper.”

–With assistance from Richard Weiss in Frankfurt, Kari Lundgren in London, Andrea Rothman in Toulouse, Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas and Deena Kamel Yousef in Dubai.

This article was written by Katherine Chiglinsky from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Photo Credit: SAS's Scanorama in-flight magazine is one of the world's best.