the kicker

An Afghan In-flight Has Lessons to Teach

August 20, 2010

The Journal’s Michael M. Phillips’s “An Airline Magazine That Makes Travelers Want to Pull the Rip Cord” is an interesting read, somewhat underserved by that headline.

Phillips profiles Afghan airline Safi’s in-flight magazine, which can be found online here. It’s the anti-in-flight, in the traditional sense, eschewing hyperventilating prose on gorgeous restaurants and hot stops and top tens, in favor of some heavy doses of Afghan realism. From Phillips’s piece:

[the magazine] provides this insider’s tip about one of the city’s leading luxury hotels: “The rooms are individually air-conditioned, accessorized with amenities you will find in 4-star hotels abroad, sheets are clean, view from the room is nice, and—after the suicide bombing that took place—security measures have been implemented.”

There are articles about dog-fighting among cheerier stories on cricket in Afghanistan (headline: “Fighting the Peaceful Way”). Then there’s this:

… the magazine warns, “riots happen occasionally and are often accompanied by looting.” The Bibi Mahru swimming pool overlooking Kabul offers a beautiful view of the city, but contains no water, the magazine reports. Its diving platforms were “notorious as an execution spot” under the Taliban.

Christian Marks, “the cheerfully blunt German editor” who carries a pistol under his jacket when in the country, tells Phillips: “I would like it to be a magazine where you can read interesting things, not just get brainwashed by some marketing agency that says you can’t show problems.”

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It’s pulling in advertisers.

The magazine’s audience attracts advertisers as specialized as its content. There are an Australian firm that offers medical services in scary places; a Middle Eastern satellite-communications company whose gear works in the phoneless hinterlands; and a war-zone car-repair service with outlets in Kabul, Baghdad and Monrovia. The ad for Alpha Armouring Panzerung, a Munich company, shows an armored Mercedes SUV cruising through the flames of a roadside bomb.

If you take some time to read the magazine online, you’ll quickly learn this is no Condé Nast TravelerMother JonesForeign Policy mashup. The writing is mostly perfunctory, the layout brochure-like (like many in-flights, you might say). But though it is a rather idiosyncratic set of circumstances that’s meant Safi’s magazine can’t keep its head above the clouds, forcing it instead to engage in realities on the ground, U.S. in-flights might take note.

There are few things duller than a list of the Top Ten pizza joints in a city you’re probably not headed to, or a tedious, access-less profile of a celebrity you probably don’t care about. And yet this is what you find time and time again in that little pouch in front of you when you’re up in the air. In Afghanistan, Safi is kind of forced to write some interesting, grittier stuff. Stateside, it would be nice if more airlines chose to.

Now, according to many of them, they are. And for an interesting look at how some in-flights are trying to offer their readers a little more than fluff—and the corporate and other challenges they face in doing so—take a look at this piece, “Friendlier Skies.” For the time being, we’ll still be heading to the Hudson Newsstand next time we’re at JFK.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.