Career Advice

What Should Freelancers Do to Write for In-Flight Magazines?

By Susan Johnston March 16th, 2015

Even as newsstand magazines continue to downsize or fold, airlines haven’t given up on print. Monthly in-flight magazines meant to entertain passengers with glossy photos and engaging content focused on travel, lifestyle, and business are still par for the course on your average flight. And for freelancers searching for their next writing project, these in-flight publications present lucrative opportunities.

“This market can pay well and is often a lot less hassle than commercial travel magazines,” said Ilima Loomis, a Hawaii-based freelancer who’s written for Hawaiian Airlines’ Hana Hou, Aloha Airlines’ Spirit of Aloha, and the now defunct NWA World Traveler. A quick look at Contently’s rates database confirms that some in-flight magazines offer writers at least $1 per word.

Why have these magazines survived while traditional print periodicals have suffered? Perhaps because flights have a built-in audience who need to kill time and may not want to pay extra for Internet access. And that opportunity isn’t just for airlines either. Other transportation companies publish their own magazines, such as Amtrak’s Arrive Magazine and Eurostar’s Metropolitan Magazine, to bring in advertising revenue and add to the customer experience. Regardless of the means of transportation, these publications are likely working with bigger editorial budgets than your typical commercial travel magazine.

For freelancers looking to break into the in-flight magazine market, here’s what you need to know to fly by the competition.

Read the publication first

Becoming familiar with the publication before you pitch is good advice for any media outlet, but for in-flight magazines, that idea might apply even more since they aren’t as well-known to most consumers.

“There’s a lot of diversity in what these magazines look for, so you should read each publication carefully and pitch to them specifically,” Loomis said. “The common denominator might be that you find them in the pocket of your airline seat, but beyond that, they’re all pretty different magazines.”

To show just how much point of view and tone can differ, Justin Goldman, managing editor for United’s Hemispheres Magazine, points to a short profile of a traffic cop in Ho Chi Minh City. These “funny stories and cute personalities of people from around the world” (as he describes them) appear in Hemispheres, but may not fit a more buttoned-down, business-focused publication.

Fortunately, you don’t have to actually fly a particular airline to peruse its in-flight magazine. Most airlines offer archives with free downloads for past issues. Even some premium publications only distributed to passengers in first class—for example, United’s Rhapsody, Etihad Airways’ Aspire, and British Airways’ First Life—are still accessible online.

Think beyond travel

In-flight magazines aren’t just for travel content. They also regularly run general interest pieces, stories about lifestyle trends, and business personality profiles. Goldman said most of the pitches he receives are travel-related despite the fact that the magazine doesn’t actually publish that many travel pieces.

“‘Three Perfect Days’ is our big travel story every month, but pitching that’s a waste of time because we do those in-house,” he explained. “We don’t assign those to random freelancers.”

However, Hemispheres does have a front-of-book travel section called “Dispatches” open to freelancers who have an interesting story they can tell in about 250 words.

Keep destinations in mind

If you’re pitching a destination story or even a story about an innovative new business, check a route map to see if your subject has any connection to the airline’s destinations. Each month, Goldman gets a fair number of pitches for stories about South Africa, but he can’t accept any of the ideas because United doesn’t fly there.

The magazine does print food and beverage coverage that can have a location peg, but it tends to be more focused on trends. Each issue of Hemispheres also includes a longer feature between 2,000 and 3,000 words. “It’s good if it has a location peg, but it’s not usually a travel story,” Goldman added.

It’s worth repeating: No matter how good your story is, it’s not going to get accepted if the airline doesn’t fly there.

Save your edgy pitches for Vice

Some in-flight magazines might use an irreverent tone, but for the most part, they’re not covering contentious political topics or harrowing stories that might upset passengers.

“You wouldn’t do something about drugs,” Goldman said. “It’s a little more family-friendly. We wouldn’t do a ton of Vice-style content.” The last thing an airline wants is a controversial story from its in-flight magazine to upset passengers. Flying is already stressful enough.

And while you could also say freelancing is stressful enough, hopefully these tips will make your journey to get a byline in an in-flight magazine a little more pleasant.

Image by Feng Yu
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