Sunday, February 01, 2015

The Sky Is Falling

Ah, the joy of flying. It brings out the animal in all of us. Airports resemble stockyards. An aquatic hierarchy governs boarding: Big Fish in front, sardines in the back.

Then there’s the bad food, bad air, bad equipment and a guaranteed bad attitude when you deplane. Nobody is going to remember this as the Golden Era of Air Travel.

And it just got worse.

Faced with the gloomy prospect of a long flight, any ray of sunshine, anything that could put a smile on your face is to be embraced.

For me, and many others, it was the SkyMall magazine, in the seat pocket in front of you, just behind the dog-eared airline magazine whose crossword puzzle had been filled out in ink and the barf bag.

A veritable kaleidoscope of items nobody really needed, it was nonetheless a diversion that helped you forget that your knees were pushed up under your chin and that the guy in front you just went into full recline mode while the kid in back of you kicked the seat.

Besides, it beat the hell out of reading the emergency safety instructions card.

Alas, SkyMall is no more. The magazine is a victim of the same forces that batter many publications theses days. Its owners said it had been affected by new regulations that allow passengers to use their smartphones and tablets during flights. 

"With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the SkyMall in-flight catalog," Scott Wiley, the CEO and CFO of Xhibit Corp., SkyMall's parent company, said in court filings.

Another scalp on the belt of progress.

But there was more to it than that. It was undercut by websites like Amazon that sold similar products but at a cheaper price. And its parent company was involved in some questionable business decisions.

No matter. Its owners are requesting an auction in late March to begin the process of liquidating remaining merchandise.

SkyMall, Inc. was founded in 1990 by a bunch of guys with a great idea: "get customers to order within 20 minutes of landing and have the goods waiting for them on arrival."
That would have required SkyMall to operate warehouses near major airports. According to one report, this business model translated into a $6 million loss per year.

Then they had a better idea. They wouldn't carry any products, they'd just be a magazine where other companies could advertise. These companies would either pay a flat advertising fee or pay SkyMall a percentage of each transaction. The companies that advertise in SkyMall would be responsible to "drop ship" their products directly to the customer, according to a story in Atlantic.

But what products! 

A bar contained in a replica antique Italian world globe. A spatula with a headlight for flipping burgers at night. A head massager. An underwater cell phone system.  A paper towel holder with USB ports. A pizza scented T-shirt. A mounted squirrel head. A laser guided pool cue.

But wait, there’s more. A selection of lawn ornaments such as a ceramic Sasquatch, 8-foot-tall giraffe, or "muscular god of the sea." A dainty wooden box that emits laughter when opened. A living room end table that doubles as a litter box. A foot tanner, a high heel bottle holder, a Star Wars Darth Vader toaster or a glow-in-the-dark toilet seat.

For the person who has everything there was the Velociraptor Dinosaur Statue. It was described this way:

“This Jurassic-sized, meat-eating prehistoric replica dinosaur statue is realistically sculpted with terrifying teeth, retracted foot claws and an S-shaped neck, then cast in quality designer resin and hand-painted with powerfully convincing color and texture as faithful to the ancient species as possible.

“This large-scale, display-quality sculpture transforms any home, garden, restaurant.”

The last sentence can only be described as an understatement.

There is an upside to the decline and fall of Skymall, especially if you’re an airline CEO.

According to an article on the Wired website, the company’s bankruptcy could improve airlines’ bottom lines, because they’ll no longer carry the catalog in every seat-back pocket.

Airlines are obsessed with cutting weight, because lighter planes need less fuel, and jet fuel is, depending upon who you ask, an airline’s no. 1 or no. 2 expense. That’s why airlines are investing in thinner seats, lighter trash compactors, and entertainment systems that use sleeker electronics.

So tossing those catalogs will save airlines like Southwest (which already planned to ditch them), United, and American hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Will the savings quickly be passed onto the traveling public? When pigs fly first class. Or Velociraptor statues become all the rage.

I’ll miss SkyMall.  I’ll rue the day I didn’t order the Justin Beiber travel kit or the sippy wine cups.

Like air travel itself, the fun is gone.

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