Ads on a Plane: Annoying Passengers to No End

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Tray table advertising by SkyMedia installed on an America West Airlines plane in December 2003.

Is the last frontier of relatively ad-free space in danger of being overrun? If the airlines have anything to do with it, then definitely.

Some airlines, in fact, have long been in the business of selling ad space on all sorts of airplane parts: overhead bins, tray tables, air-sickness bags and even, well, the planes themselves. American West Airlines, for example, began putting ads on tray tables in 2003. According to USA Today, Spirit Airlines earns $14 million for advertisements that appear on the exterior of its jets. Budget airline Ryanair also allows advertisers to buy ad space on its planes.

Ads are even appearing on flight attendants’ aprons, on snack boxes and in safety videos. One Memphis-based flier told USA Today that advertising “anywhere inside a cabin is inappropriate.” People come to expect their time in the air to be a safe haven from the frenetic, marketing-filled world on the ground. But is that still a realistic expectation? Considering how many airlines are adding Wi-Fi to allow fliers to stay connected thousands of feet up, having a quiet, calm, detached-from-the-real-world flight is already an archaic idea.

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Of course airlines argue that the advertising revenue allows them to keep ticket costs steady (though holiday airfare will tell a different tale). But some customers say that if they are to be bombarded with advertising in the air, then ticket costs should be discounted to begin with.

Certain airlines, though, are mindful of negative feedback regarding plane ads and do at least try to keep things simple. Southwest tries “not to hit customers with too many advertising messages,” says spokeswoman Ashley Dillon. “Our goal is to keep the messages travel-related and focused on Southwest products.” JetBlue has planes painted for business partner DirecTV and two sports teams it sponsors. Neither company allows advertising on the exterior of their jets.

Any way you look at it, ads don’t seem to be going anywhere. So perhaps invest in an eye mask. But not one from the airline. That’ll probably have advertising on it too.

Frances Romero is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @frances_romero or on Tumblr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.

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