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.
Aaron Gell, executive editor of the New York Observer and formerly editor of United Airlines' Hemispheres, explains this head-in-the-sand approach, common to many in-flight mags: "There's definitely a concern about publishing anything that will scare passengers or have some political implication. And that's understandable. The magazine is seen by readers as representing the airline, and why would they want to challenge people too much?"
In other words, travelers don't need to know about the trial of Hosni Mubarak, the heavy-handedness of the ruling generals, or the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. All they need to know is that the pyramids are still there. A blurb at the front of Horus reassures the reader that while foreign archaeological excavation teams fled the country during the "security vacuum," almost all are back in town and back at work. So Egypt is doing just fine.
But there are times when this sort of packaged fantasy crosses the line from justifiably improbable to completely preposterous. Take a 2009 story in Myanmar's Air Mandalay magazine highlighting the town of Sagaing, on the Irrawaddy River. Photos of golden Buddhas and groups of picturesque monks out of central casting (shaved heads, oxblood-colored robes) grace the pages. "During World War II people from Mandalay and Yangon sought safety in Sagaing from the bombs and fighting; now those seeking to escape the stress of secular life can find religious sanctuary here," the story reads. "It is one of the most peaceful places in Myanmar, perhaps second only to Bagan in its tranquil ambience." Of course, it is also the place where government forces slaughtered hundreds of demonstrators during countrywide uprisings in August 1988.
Perhaps not every travel piece needs to acknowledge every historical trauma, but still.… In a 2010 issue of Air Mandalay, a writer meanders through Rakhine state, marveling at the joys of traveling by river, joking about all the temples along the way, and eating local delicacies. "Rakhine State," he writes cheerfully, "is also famous for its own particular variety of fish and noodle soup." Actually, what Rakhine has since become famous for is horrific ethnic violence and the recent threat of reimposing military rule after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman led to massive, brutal retaliation against Muslims. In June, violence that left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless prompted global condemnation, and many Muslims have fled to Bangladesh seeking refuge. If you're seeking refuge in Bangladesh, things are pretty bad.
There is, however, a subset of troubled-state magazines that simply dispense with the obfuscation and embrace a form of failed-state ground truth. Angola's Taag airline, for example, celebrates the role the carrier played when the country's roads were impassable -- as in: Airplanes! They helped people get around when it was too dangerous to drive! -- and promotes new amenities like the asphalt recently set down across the country.
Perhaps the greatest realism of all comes from the in-flight magazine of Afghanistan's Safi Airways. In a 2010 profile of Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city, the author exults that there was only one power outage during his entire visit. Even better: "[I]nside Herat, progress can be felt -- and even tasted.… Already thousands of households today have access to clean water. Rather unusual for an Afghan city." Herat strongman Ismail Khan, the mujahideen rebel who led local Afghan resistance against the Soviets, is described as a "warlord, but one who also reinvested the money he took from the merchants and the flourishing trade between Iran and Afghanistan." The article commends Khan -- now minister of energy -- for preserving Herat's infrastructure, rather than crushing it or letting it wither, as happened in other parts of the country. And, in fact, it's true: Herat was long considered more stable than Kabul, until recent violence and a spate of suicide bombings hit the city this spring. Then again, with threats of violence and kidnapping, it's best to fly there. "[I]t is not," the author admits, "recommended to drive from Kabul to Herat."
That jarring practicality is purposeful. As the magazine's editor, Christian Marks, told Der Spiegel in 2010, "People who fly with Safi Airways to Afghanistan aren't your typical tourists; mostly they work here. They're diplomats, aid workers, or the employees of security companies. You don't have to pretend to them."
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance to create an advertising platform for all those companies that do work in hazardous regions, and the magazine's pages are filled with war-zone specials: "In areas of conflict drive an armored vehicle from GSG. Armored Vehicles. German Standards." Where else can you see publicity for a soon-to-be-built walled community within easy reach of Kabul's airport? "Not Just an 'LSA,'" the ad promises, not bothering to spell out the military term "logistics support area," but a "fully secure community" for "personal and office" use. So good, you never have to leave!
Other stories in Safi's magazine give the same nod to Afghanistan's unique exigencies. In a section titled "Security," Westerners are advised to "Stay far away" from military convoys and warned that "riots happen occasionally and are often accompanied by looting -- stay well away from them as authorities will respond with lethal force." Another article notes that a popular walking spot for expats is Bibi Mahru Hill, which has "reasonable views," though at the top, the "Olympic-size swimming pool built by the Russians" has "barely been full since it was built due to the difficulties of pumping water uphill. During the war the diving board was notorious as an execution spot."
Undoubtedly, such stories would have offended the sensibilities of the white-gloved air travelers back in the Jet Age's heyday. Then again, Pan Am is out of business, and these guys are going strong.