Combine a tough time for airlines with a tough time for print advertising and the result is…a very different in-flight magazine in your seat back pocket.

While few writers want to speak on the record, the chatter among former columnists and editors at airline magazines is that they have entered a period of serious decline. The publishers are under pressure to cut costs and reduce the physical weight of each issue, so inevitably this is having an effect on the content within.

It would seem at first glance that airline magazines are in an enviable position. They’ve got a captive readership, each issue gets read multiple times in a month, and everyone picking it up is well-off enough to be buying airplane tickets. An advertiser’s dream!

Nevertheless, the businesses that advertise on the pages of in-flight magazines are hurting as badly as anyone else is in this economy, so they are cutting back. The airlines, now seeing the magazines as extra weight to carry instead of a marketing tool and valued service, are slashing both the page counts and the depth of the articles within.

Dumber than the SkyMall Catalog

Airline magazines used to be the prestige publications, frequently winning creative non-fiction writing awards, with novelists and well-known columnists gracing the pages. Those days appear to be fading away.

The airline that has led the way in cutting back every part of the customer experience — US Airways — has been the most aggressive. Earlier this year the publisher Pace Communications sent a contract cancellation notice to all writers, cut all its long-time columnists, and started repurposing free content from bloggers who were happy to have the print exposure. The resulting magazine is, as my seatmate put it on one flight, “dumber than the SkyMall catalog.”

The new US Airways magazine seems to be trying to replicate an RSS reader, with most articles being one-page blog entries or just a product photo and one paragraph of text. All this works fine on their Web site — which hardly anyone visits — but is awkward on a two-hour flight when passengers have plenty of time to read.

Southwest hasn’t reverted to getting repurposed blog content yet, but the front half of the magazine is similarly light on content. Not until page 52 of the April issue do we get anything but nibble-sized articles written by anonymous staffers. One of these is a picture profile of a $3,500 guitar, another two of them are cocktail recipes from the same Philadelphia chef. A whole page is dedicated to trivial factoids accompanying an illustration, such as a paragraph on how 85 percent of women exaggerate their symptoms when sick.

Then that bylined article on page 52 is on the weighty topic of how nice it is to go barefoot, written by an assistant editor. Later though comes a main course that saves the day. It’s another in-house story, but the kind of in-depth, offbeat personality profile that airline magazines used to own. Spanning 14 pages, the story has time to really tell a story, that of freelance “super fan” Cameron Hughes, a guy who gets paid the big bucks to travel around the country and get sports team attendees fired up, making sure they have a good time at the big game.

Continental has also brought most writing in house, posting a notice at the beginning of the year that they would not be accepting any material from writers who didn’t already have something scheduled.

In cases where experienced expert writers have not been shut out, their pay has been slashed. London-based Ink Publishing-the company behind the in-flight magazines of United, AirTran, and Midway-reportedly slashed freelance pay by 75 percent at their U.S. titles a few months ago, bringing pay levels at their publications down to one-fourth of what it is as most top-level newsstand magazines. (Several long-time freelancers have indicated that this cut has not extended to the international titles — yet.)

Some Cake With That Icing?

Northwest’s Magazine disappeared in the merger with Delta and Delta’s Sky magazine is in flux, moving from its old home Pace Communications to the new one MSP Custom Content, publisher of magazines for IBM, General Mills, and the Republican National Convention. They are trying hard to widen the readership though, announcing that they will sell the magazine for $3.99 on the racks of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and B. Dalton newsstands.

The two magazines for American Airlines and American Eagle are certainly struggling like everyone else, but so far they seem to be trying their hardest to treat their customers like educated readers. The issues are a lot thinner than they used to be and the April 1 issue of American Way did have Billy and Miley Cyrus in the cover story, but there were also real travel articles, a good round-up piece on baseball stadiums, and some good in-depth personality profiles. American Eagles’ Latitude magazine supplants useful travel articles with a feature on the First Nations people’s involvement in hosting Vancouver’s Winter Olympic games. [Update: the American Way editor pointed out to me that they publish twice a month, not just once, so they’re cranking out a lot more content over four weeks.]

In the future, the airlines may opt to just make the “magazine” electronic, as a part of some built-in entertainment system. There are many inherent problems with that, including less effective advertising layouts and the strain on your eyes in a desert-dry cabin after four hours of flying. Some see this as the inevitable transition, though we’re left to wonder how that works during take-off and landing, the times when in-flight magazines currently get the most action.

For now, assume that at least the crossword puzzle will kill more than 10 minutes of your flight time. But you may want to bring plenty of extra reading material along.

Tim Leffel is author of the book The World’s Cheapest Destinations and co-author of Traveler’s Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America. He also edits the award-winning narrative Web ‘zine Perceptive Travel.