Let’s say you’re a businessman or woman, the vague description that calls to mind people in pinstriped suits, carrying briefcases while closing deals on one of several cell phones (even though, in truth, it could literally be anyone in any profession). You’ve got a meeting in San Francisco with a hotshot tech company that you’re going to try to buy before it gets too big. Or perhaps you are a family of four, having arrived at JFK in the midst of another polar vortex dressed in vacation gear because you’re headed to San Juan for an extended weekend. Or maybe, like I was, you are a college student flying standby, sending prayers to your preferred deity and the Special Services desk that a seat, just one, leaves itself open for you to make it home in time for Christmas. Even the exit row will do.
In any of these cases, until recently, you were going to come face-to-face with a cultural touchstone that had become synonymous with quasi-gag gifts and airplane perusing. It was the bible for people who had forgotten their own reading material and the most important window into things we did not know we needed. I’m talking, of course, about the delightful in-flight catalog SkyMall, which filed for bankruptcy last week after twenty-five years of peddling weird and wonderful products.
SkyMall began in 1990 as a form of direct marketing, connecting airline customers who were going to be on flights anyway with products and brands which saw it as perhaps the closest they could get at that time to forced exposure. The founders originally intended for customers to make purchases in air and have their products waiting for them upon arrival, which required warehouses near major airports. This strategy proved unwieldy and unsustainable, and SkyMall retreated to a more familiar mail-to-home method. It established contracts with many of the world’s largest carriers and became commonplace in seatbacks, right behind safety brochures featuring expressionless people acting heroically in the face of imminent danger. Buy this pierogi ornament, then assist others with their oxygen masks. So it went.
Since 1999, SkyMall has bounced from equity firm to equity firm, with its website reportedly making millions annually in e-commerce revenue. A merger followed, and then this unfortunate corporate action, which will probably result in a firesale of pet bed staircases and NapAnywhere pillows.
This is all bullocks now, of course, but it helps to have some background for something so ubiquitous that many of us probably have never even considered its origin or history. For many of us, SkyMall has always just been there, ready to suck us in with promises of Sasquatch t-shirts and officially-licensed NFL shoe wine holders. We never questioned who was behind all of this, or who thought it would be a good idea to sell some of these seemingly useless items. I mean, really, who did the market research and decided that we needed an eight-foot-tall replica of an African elephant, appropriately titled “Enormous African Elephant,” for the princely sum of $9,495 (plus an additional $1,199 for shipping and handling)?
But that’s just the beauty of SkyMall, and probably the reason for its demise. Its products were so untenable as anything more than possible talking points at the dinner parties of millionaires and morons that many of us browsed the catalogs merely looking for a laugh. The success rate in that particular pursuit, of course, was usually very high.
To some degree, at least in my experience, SkyMall afforded travelers comfort. Knowing that it would be there made easier a first trip to a new city. Throwing it in your bag provided perfect layover fodder, the kind of reading material which goes effortlessly with Cinnabon and uncleanliness. Boarding passes, with or without seat assignments, function sublimely as catalog bookmarks. The reliability of SkyMall outpaced that of TSA checkpoints and zone announcements, right up until the moment it didn’t.
Above is the banner which, as of the time of this writing, greets you on the SkyMall website, like a frantic aunt at your cousin’s hospital bedside. It carries the dual airs of desperation and optimism, holding hope that perhaps we, the consumers, can save the once-mighty king of travel retail, if only we would go ahead and finalize that order for the “Of course I’m right, I’m Bob” shirt. And Robert is your uncle. ‘Nuff said.
With the advent of digital media and marketing finding its way into even the most benign of mobile applications and tasks, SkyMall seems destined to abdicate its throne, at least physically. Even with shows of support now coming out of the woodwork, that banner will likely stand right up to the day the company closes, leaving only a 404 Not Found Error message in its wake.
Without SkyMall, air travel regresses even further into a pit of endless despair and nagging headaches brought on through the use of moving walkways, gate agent pages and delays due to maintenance. SkyMall made us smile, and it made us think. In this day and age, what more could we want?
The answer: an $85,000 customized boat, shaped like a shark, capable of reaching speeds upwards of 55 MPH. Available today, through SkyMall.