Why Air Canada’s enRoute is an in-flight magazine good enough to buy
By Charlene Dy

On an Air Canada flight to Shanghai last May, Paul Hughes fished enRoute out of his seatback pocket. He planned to skim it for the movie listings. It was, after all, only an in-flight magazine.

He wasn’t sure when it dawned on him that something was different. Was it the slick photography? The stylish layout? A surprisingly hefty article about the historical origin of the grassy North American lawn and its toll on the environment? By then, the Seattle-based copywriter had all but forgotten the New Yorkers and Believers he’d tucked into his carry-on. He tore his eyes from the page and turned to his girlfriend, Heidi. “You know,” he said, “this in-flight magazine is actually pretty good.”

In a genre known for mediocrity (Miles Kington, a columnist for the U.K. newspaper the Independent, is said to have written that vomit bags were generally better reads than in-flight magazines), enRoute has risen so far above the fray that it has redefined the genre. At its best, its crisp design, all-star cast of literary contributors, and ambitious editorial direction have made it perhaps the only airline publication worth paying for.

Hughes is not the only one impressed by enRoute. While the magazine industry can be somewhat promiscuous in its award giving, enRoute has nevertheless made a mark: by its count, it has won more than 350 editorial and design awards, most notably the World Airline Entertainment Association’s Avion award for Best Inflight Magazine in 2001 and 2002. And in last year’s North American Travel Journalists Association Awards Competition, it beat out consumer glossies like National Geographic Traveler and American Express’s Travel + Leisure to share first prize for Best Travel Magazine with Budget Travel.

Produced by custom-publishing houses for their airline clients, most in-flight magazines traditionally have read the way airline food tastes: a pale approximation of the real thing. Serving their clients rather than their readers, they were known for producing clunky graphics, articles on a destination city’s local historical museum, and endless airline promotions: letters from CEOs, pages on the annual flight attendants’ charity drive, or a spread on the airline’s employee of the month. In recent years, they’ve undergone cosmetic changes, fancying up with the occasional commissioned photograph, hiring “personalities” as writers, and featuring celebrities. But many still have the heart of the old publications, spouting touristy pap for readers trapped on a plane. EnRoute, however, had higher ambitions.

When Spafax, a boutique custom-publishing house based in Montreal, acquired enRoute in 1998, Air Canada was in the midst of rebranding its image as a private company. According to Raymond Girard, vice president of media and publishing at Spafax, the airline launched a campaign that sought to overturn and exceed what people expected from an airline. This extended to the magazine, a forty-year-old brand. “It had sort of been watered down,” said Girard. “It had lost a lot of cachet with its readers. It wasn’t taking any risks.”

Air Canada and Spafax executives and editors brainstormed and came up with a document that they photocopied and distributed throughout the company. In the center of the sheet, with ideas radiating outward, were the words “Defy Milquetoast.” The new enRoute would have opinions. It would use writers who were relevant to its audience. No more talking down to readers. No more pushing the Air Canada brand. Less stock photography. No more tepid graphics.

The changes came slowly. In its April 1998 issue, a magnificent photo essay on the Tibetan plateau was inexplicably followed by an article on ergonomic work spaces. Despite fancy ads for Hugo Boss and an optimistic editor’s note from Lise Ravary, enRoute still hadn’t found its voice.

Curtis Gillespie, a Canadian fiction writer and journalist, said that in the late 90s, his impression was that enRoute was a “light” magazine. He wrote for the well-respected Canadian publications Saturday Night and Toronto Life and said that even in 2000, “enRoute wasn’t really high on my radar.” This changed when then-editor Charlene Rooke (now editor-in-chief of Western Living) asked to meet with him. Over Frappuccinos at Starbucks, she explained enRoute’s vision: they wanted it to be a lifestyle magazine filled with real writers and real voices. They had read his writing and they wanted him to contribute.

More than a dozen stories ensued. Gillespie said that enRoute was “very good at letting writers have a voice.” Story ideas came out of phone conversations: a quip about a friend’s golf course in Bulgaria led to a story on tourism development in the Eastern Bloc; a comment about traveling without his family led to a two-thousand-word piece about a $25,000 family vacation in Australia (the magazine and the Australian Tourism Board shared costs). “You never get the feeling with them that expenses are an issue,” said Gillespie.

If writers are attracted to enRoute for its editors’ willingness to cultivate a writer’s voice and the ample compensation, others are attracted to the magazine for its distribution. Each month, 2.2 million passengers board Air Canada flights, and according to estimates from Canada’s Print Measurement Bureau, almost a million of those passengers read enRoute. Because of the magazine’s national scope, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canada Council for the Arts approached the magazine in 2001 asking if it would publish winning stories from the annual CBC Literary Awards, a national contest that for over twenty years has discovered new talent, like the novelist Michael Ondaatje, who went on to write The English Patient.

If the March crop of in-flight magazines is any indication, enRoute has outdone the competition. Northwest Airlines WorldTraveler’s “Tasting Manila” is billed as a cover story but has all the false cheer and insight of a special advertising section: “Spend your time in Palawan snorkeling or spelunking in clear blue water, or unwinding on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The Philippines has it all!”

Southwest Airlines’s Spirit also has a promising cover. In the photograph, musician Tom Waits strides across a dusty sepia landscape, gripping a megaphone in his hand, a crazed grin stretched across his face. The piece seems oddly stitched together, with a long list of random quotes taking up almost two pages. Then in italics at the bottom of the article, the following phrase appears: “Parts of this interview appeared in Stop Smiling Magazine.” And the achingly moody sepia photography? Reprints from the shoot for Waits’s Orphans album. Sloppy seconds, all of it.

For its March cover story, enRoute drafted Canadian novelist Timothy Taylor to write a piece on Chicago. Taylor, who Maclean’s called “one of the most graceful young stylists around,” lived in the city as a young writer. For enRoute, he produced a meditative essay on how Chicago’s gradual gentrification is both at odds with and appropriate for the city’s literary history. He quotes such Chicago icons as Saul Bellow, Carl Sandburg, and Nelson Algren. In another writer’s hands, those references could seem decorative or meant for intellectual posturing. But Taylor’s own writing has enough lyricism and integrity to respond to their observations. After taking in a waterside view of the city skyline, he writes, “Lake Michigan waves do not break and run like those at the ocean—they churn. They produce a constant howl, like a great change engine that has been running a long time in the same place, responding to no external tide. An image, once glimpsed, that seems to refract throughout Chicagoland. For every radical departure, a balancing reminder of local ways.”

EnRoute does recommend places to sleep, eat, and visit, but readers are likely to come away from this article less preoccupied with choosing a boutique hotel than with feeling that Chicago’s soul has been laid bare.

It may seem odd that a new literary star would write for an in-flight magazine, but Taylor sensed that this magazine was different. “I’ve looked at other in-flight magazines and they don’t bear any comparison, and I probably wouldn’t write for them,” he said. At enRoute he was given complete freedom to explore ideas on consumer culture. “They sort of let me follow my curiosity,” said Taylor.

EnRoute also wields considerable influence in food journalism. In 2003, it won a James Beard Foundation Award for Amy Rosen’s roundup of Canada’s best new restaurants. Each November, the magazine releases a list chosen by a panel of more than thirty Canadian food authorities. Last year, Vancouver’s Nu, where the menu features fried oysters injected with syringes of beer, took the number one spot. “It has an enormous impact,” the restaurant’s manager, Andy Crimp, said. “Our reservations jump. In a month when, on a Friday night, we usually have sixty to eighty covers, we’ll do two hundred to two-fifty.”

EnRoute has editorial vision like no other airline magazine, but in its ambition to be as good as a consumer glossy, it occasionally looks like a copycat. Last October’s two-page photo spread on Canadian starlets featured five girls in couture, carefully sprawled on a sofa in the middle of a Los Angeles warehouse. The spread could have been lifted out of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue. It was shot by Matthew Welch, a Canadian photographer who has, in fact, worked for Vanity Fair. In September, enRoute’s fashion spread on Toronto designers featured a couple so well-groomed they looked as though they were made of wax. Instantly, it recalled Wallpaper magazine.

In terms of ideas, however, the magazine stays ahead of the pack. EnRoute’s editor-in-chief Arjun Basu, an eagle-eyed trendwatcher, takes pleasure in keeping a file of other magazines’ clips: they’re all stories that enRoute scooped first.

Randy Johnson, editor-in-chief at United Airlines’s Hemispheres, produced by the custom-publishing house Pace Communications, also admires enRoute but points out that it’s a different game for the Canadian magazine. Hemispheres won the Avion Award for Best In-flight Magazine last year, but Johnson says it’s been an uphill battle competing against British, Canadian, and Australian magazines. Because of their international status, those publications have an easier time attracting high-end advertisers—and can then commission higher-quality content. “In the U.S., we’re fighting the good fight to get that wonderful, beautiful, international brand advertising,” he said. “It elevates the magazine completely.”

Basu agrees that enRoute’s cultural influence can be partly attributed to Canada’s less competitive media landscape. “We can be influential. Media is so fragmented in the States, so no magazine, no matter how famous it is, can make that claim. It can add to the national dialogue, but they can’t create it. I’m not saying that enRoute creates national dialogue, but we’re a large voice.”

EnRoute’s primary shortcoming, it seems, is price. It’s not available on newstands and, last time we checked, roundtrip from New York City to Montreal was $467. Then again, devoted readers can also write the magazine: back issues are only seven Canadian dollars.


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