What will we do in a world without SkyMall?

Less fun than flipping through SkyMall.
Less fun than flipping through SkyMall.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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For 25 years, American airline passengers have been able to count on SkyMall, a quirky catalog tucked behind every seat, as a source of in-flight entertainment. Whether one was in the market for an $80 automatic cereal dispenser or not, in the days before iPads and onboard Wi-Fi, flipping through SkyMall was, to some of us, “one of the few pleasures left in commercial air travel.

But now SkyMall’s parent company has filed for bankruptcy. The explanation given to the Wall Street Journal by CEO Scott Wiley is tragically simple:

“With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the SkyMall in-flight catalog,” Mr. Wiley said.

Of course. With the profusion of e-commerce options available now, travelers today don’t need a printed catalog to shop for wildly expensive gadgets or relieve boredom while flying—they have smartphones, tablets, and laptops to play with instead. We should have seen this coming.

SkyMall catalog by Flickr user
A sight for sore eyes?
Image: Flickr/Kelly Taylor

A WIRED feature titled “This Is What SkyMall Will Look Like in the Year 2040” may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it was also a nod to our collective assumptions about SkyMall’s cultural relevance.  Many of us who never made a single SkyMall purchase but appreciated the ubiquitous catalog’s oddities apparently took for granted that it would always be around—as if it were immune to the ill winds plaguing print magazines and the US Postal Service.

Twitter users have a tendency to cry apocalypse whenever any kind of news breaks (e.g., Doritos-flavored Mountain Dew), and there’s no shortage of similarly dramatic tweets reacting to SkyMall’s bankruptcy.

More than 600 million pairs of eyes used to scan SkyMall’s pages each year. For most of its history it has been, technically, just an advertising company, charging clients up to $129,000 per issue plus a transaction fee to feature one of their products. One could use a seatback airphone (remember those?) free of charge to call SkyMall customer service and place orders in-flight—though many customers simply took the catalogs off their flights to place their orders over the phone later.

Christine Aguilera, SkyMall’s president from 1997 to 2013, was never shy about giving interviews. Aguilera told the New York Times in 2009 that her favorite SkyMall product was a household bug vacuum—the catalog’s 5th-best seller that year—that she considered essential for dealing with scorpions in her Arizona home. The average customer, at least back in 2009, was someone with a college degree and an income of more than $75,000 a year.

The Los Angeles Times warned that trouble was afoot in April of 2014. XhibitCorp, SkyMall’s newish parent company at the time, had just reported that the publication lost $3.2 million over a six-month period in 2013. Staff meetings in Phoenix, Arizona, where new products being considered for the catalog were passed around for show-and-tell, had taken on a “new urgency.” Though SkyMall was trying to come up with a digital strategy to stay competitive, its modus operandi was still, as always, to provoke in customers an “Oh my God, why didn’t I think of that?” reaction.

Even in 2013, when Pricenomics’ Rohin Dhar spent some 2,500 words delving into SkyMall’s history, there were signs. Dhar described XhibitCorp as “a company that makes its money selling spammy weight-loss products,” and “more of a parody of a tech company than a real company at all.”

Dhar concluded by saying that he found the situation “sad” and “confusing,” and wondered whether perhaps SkyMall’s association with the “lowly” XhibitCorp was “karma for the decades of using their catalogue to sell a bunch of lovable but useless junk.”