Back in the heyday of Pan Am and Eastern Airlines, commercial flight was a thing of opulence, of rarity, of beauty. There is a reason the expression "jet set" still conjures images of the well-heeled swilling martinis while hurtling toward exotic destinations, armed with hatboxes and designer luggage. Those days may be long gone, but in an era when coach class has become an exercise in elective debasement, one perk from the dawn of air travel remains: You may no longer be offered a beverage, but you will, invariably, find a complimentary in-flight magazine tucked into the seat pocket in front of you.
Indeed, there are more than 200 such publications provided at 30,000 feet today -- from the longest-running, KLM's Holland Herald (which first appeared in 1966); to Smile, the magazine of the Philippines' Cebu Pacific Air; to the luxury-themed Oryx, aboard the equally luxe Qatar Airways. Courtesy of a (literally) captive audience and a seemingly endless well of advertisers eager for travelers' eyes and wallets, the in-flight magazine has proved remarkably resilient, undiminished even as the Internet and a poor economy have crushed lesser print products. Holland Herald, for example, claims to reach 2.1 million travelers each month. Brands from Armani to American Express pony up to fill its glossy pages.
Beyond selling ads, in-flight magazines sell destinations -- sometimes even whole countries. That's all well and good when the magazine in question is Air New Zealand's KiaOra and the country in question is a booming, bucolic island democracy. But seemingly every airline has one of these glossies, and sitting down to read them I was struck by how often they serve as propaganda tools for countries racked by terror, ruled by dictators, or beset by revolution. If pitching a country on the U.S. State Department's travel warning list sounds like a daunting task, it is -- unless you're willing to ignore all semblance of reality.
Take Egyptair's Horus, named for the ancient Egyptian god often depicted as a falcon. Horus's October 2011 issue is dominated by a saccharine profile of Qasr el-Nil ("Palace of the Nile") Bridge, which presents the landmark as it might be -- if it were in a different city: "[A] pioneer in its size and grandeur. Today the bridge serves as a crossing for traffic, as well as a hangout place. In the summer, it is filled with young couples strolling … horse-drawn carriages transporting tourists and locals selling cold karkade (hibiscus drink).… In the winter, sidewalks are transformed into cafes where older men sit and chat over cups of tea, and children peer over the railings with a view of Cairo's skyline."
Yet even allowing for poetic license -- the magazine's editors opted to release the bridge from modern Cairo's horrendous traffic (photos in the story show the bridge gloriously, improbably, empty) -- the Qasr el-Nil Bridge is not only a picturesque backdrop for old men whiling away the hours over mint tea, but also the bridge between Tahrir and Opera squares. In other words, it was recently a battleground, on which police tried to prevent protesters from crossing to downtown during the Egyptian uprising. Aerial images of the bridge from January 2011 show riot police advancing on unarmed civilians, firing water cannons. The Horus article devotes exactly six words to the protests, focusing instead on the majesty of the bronze lions that have guarded the bridge since 1872 and the (many) other decades of history these statues have seen, rather than the events -- just months before publication -- that had changed the course of Egyptian history.
The entire issue is an exercise in forced normality -- and perhaps with good reason. Tourism constituted up to 11 percent of Egypt's GDP, or as much as $25 billion, before the Arab Spring, but has dropped precipitously. Unsurprisingly, Horus -- and, one suspects, Egypt more broadly -- is pinning its economic hopes on tourism returning to pre-revolution robustness, and it has no interest in anything that would slow that return.