(CNN) — The front pocket of an airline seat may seem an unlikely place to find a winning business model, but the slender space in front of the laminated safety card has been a goldmine for the UK publisher Ink Global for the better part of 20 years.
"I'm fed up with listening to whiners in the media who talk about the decline of print -- I just don't believe that to be true," says Ink co-founder Michael Keating. "I think inflight magazines actually buck that trend."
Inflight magazine readership, he says, is rising not just because passenger numbers are increasing 5% year-on-year, but because the formula is simple and effective: a long flight, a captive audience and the fact that people don't just do one thing on a plane.
Ink co-founder Michael Keating: "I'm fed up with whiners who talk about the decline of print. I don't believe that to be true."
Courtesy Ink Global
"Some people might say that with devices and inflight entertainment, why would people read the magazine?" Keating says. "But actually they have always read the magazine.
"Whether you're at home or sitting in a captive situation in an aircraft you'll reach forward and read the magazine, you'll watch a film, you'll have a glass of wine or sleep -- you'll basically do all of the above."
Ink has parlayed that belief into an inflight magazine empire that now stands unrivaled among inflight publishers.
The company currently creates 36 magazines for 26 airlines and its products reach 677 million people a year globally.
In the last two years it's been on an acquisitions binge, picking up coveted titles from American Airlines, United Airlines, Iberia, Norwegian and Hong Kong Express, among others.
High-energy, multilingual office
If the publisher's new London offices are anything to go by -- a repurposed former car showroom in leafy West Hampstead --print media is looking a lot more like the future than the past.
Dummy layouts are pinned to the stark concrete walls as a team works on the latest app for the Australian airline Jetstar, a Hispanophone team pores over proofs and layouts at the far end of the cavernous open plan office, on a white board there's a list of speakers for an airline-run corporate event.
For Keating, running a successful stable of inflight magazines goes far beyond printing glossy magazines.
Chasing ancillary revenue through events, apps and new media is all a part of Ink's inflight empire.
Ink is taking over the inflight mag world from its offices in a former car showroom in a leafy London neighborhood.
For sanity's sake, the ad sales teams are cordoned off in their own soundproof glass box and a multilingual wall of sound is released when the door is opened.
A sales rep kicks a football around the desks while shouting in French down a Bluetooth earpiece, the German team work the phones with quiet intensity under a German flag wrapped around a gray concrete pillar, the Spanish speakers, meanwhile, are winning the volume competition.
In the middle of the office sits a chocolate wheel and a tombola full of ping pong balls; all part of a don't-forget-your-toothbrush incentive scheme that allows one of the sales team to fly to a holiday destination the same afternoon of the draw.
One of the reps already has his bag packed and ready sitting by his desk.
"Where's the next one to Steve?" Keating calls out above the noise of at least four competing language groups.
"The Bahamas," grins Steve over the office desk partition.
'American Way' acquisition shows Ink prominence
Ink's ad sales teams show just how far in-flight magazines have come in two short decades; from fusty and expensive in-house publications often driven by marketing departments with little experience in print media, to slick ad-driven glossies with a growing fan base in the air and, thanks to their digital versions, on land too.
Its acquisition last year of "American Way," published in-house by American Airlines Group for 46 years, is a case in point.
One of America's best known and the industry's first inflight magazine, Ink Global feels it has gained control over a slice of America's cultural patrimony.
The fact that its relaunch cover this month features Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl also shows the kind of access and star appeal it can command.
Robert De Niro on the cover of United Airlines' business class title "Rhapsody" is the kind of premium content that Ink is chasing and having little difficulty in nailing down.
On American Airlines alone, Ink Global reaches as many as 500,000 people a day.
"We are incredibly proud," Keating says. "It's our 20th year in business so it's a very proud moment in our company's history to win this account.
"(American Airlines) is now the biggest airline in the world carrying 200 million passengers a year."
With a mailbag of 37,000 letters a year, American Way's audience engagement would be the envy of many national titles.
Print dead? Some might say ... no!
Not everyone is as bullish on the inflight market as Ink.
"Inflights have to compete with a range media in the first place, (and) it seems counterintuitive to me to say that as more people are using the Internet on their phones or are able to connect inflight to the Internet on their computers that I'll buy a bunch of print magazines," says Michael Sebastian, a New York-based media reporter at Ad Age.
"American Way, for example, saw its ad pages decline 24% last year," he adds. "That's a pretty steep decline.
"Print media is getting squeezed on all sides. Advertisers are shifting their print budgets to digital. They have less to spend on print media."
In more ways than one, however, the seatback pocket has proved a better distribution vehicle than the newsstands and the information gleaned from online bookings has helped Ink create one of the most sought-after rate cards in the industry.
Chasing high-end luxury brand advertisers has also lifted titles that once depended on cheap "fractional" ads (taking up an eighth of a page or less) to boost revenues.
According to data from Germany's largest market research institute, GfK, inflight magazines hold three of the top six magazine audiences.
Keating says the sheer measurability of a planeload of people -- from demographic information such as age and gender to contextual information like destinations and the date of the flight -- has made for a strong business model for its targeted advertising.
Ink's ads now appear on everything from print-at-home boarding passes and email booking confirmations to airline mobile apps.
While it hasn't always been blue skies for Ink -- Keating admits that Ryanair's decision to remove its seatback pockets had been difficult for the publishing group -- he says its continuing success is predicated on challenging outdated notions of what an inflight magazine should be.
"We changed the business model to a large degree," he says.
"In the early days we'd go to airlines and say you have a poor product and you're paying a lot of money for it, how about we give you a great product and we'll pay you."