Goodbye life-size Garden Yeti: A tribute to SkyMall, the best inflight magazine ever

Chuck Thompson, CNNUpdated 23rd January 2015
(CNN) — I never knew anyone who ordered anything from SkyMall.
I never bought a single item from the catalog myself.
Not the Stay Fresh Feline Drinking Fountain that kept kitty happy and hydrated while you were in Tibet.
Not the Emergency Evacuation Smoke Hood, which looked like a cross between a 1950s cosmonaut training device and a children's toy sold by Irwin Mainway.
Not the iGrow Hair Rejuvenation Laser.
Certainly not the 14-karat-gold cross pendant with the 2,000-year-old Widow's Mite coin embedded in it, which back in the catalog's early 2000s heyday sold for $199.95.
Perhaps I just don't travel in the right circles, but outside the pages of that vaunted catalog I never set eyes on a single portable spa or robot lawn mower, to say nothing of the sensible clothing, luggage and household items that actually filled the bulk of its pages.
That, of course, didn't stop me from appreciating the outsized pride of place SkyMall held inside the cabin of virtually every major U.S. commercial aircraft during its near 25-year run in the skies.
SkyMall wasn't just an annoying space eater in a seat-back pocket shuffled between airline propaganda, safety cards and barf bags -- it was the one reliable punch line during those interminable delays on the tarmac, the one thing the airlines offered us that could guarantee five solid minutes of entertainment, the one thing in that stuffy cabin that wasn't quite so stuffy.

SkyMall takes laughs away with it

From the amount of online tributes generated in the wake of the bankruptcy announcement from the catalog famous for hawking Bigfoot Garden Yeti statues and other durable necessities, you'd think SkyMall had been around forever.
In fact, we've only had airborne access to Ionic Breeze Personal Air Purifiers and vibrating tongue cleaners since 1990, when a visionary American accountant named Robert Worsley launched the catalog that inadvertently kept millions of passengers entertained on those excruciating hops between San Diego and Scranton, and then around the world.
SkyMall had a predecessor -- the GiftMaster catalog also featured quirky products no one would ever buy, yet somehow apparently did -- but now we're being told the golden age of inflight shopping has been done in by the pressures of technology.
According to the bankruptcy filing from SkyMall owner Xhibit Corp, the ubiquity of mobile devices and Internet access on airplanes pretty much doomed the old warhorse.
But as a convenient scapegoat "the Internet" is a lot like China these days, and I'm not sure technology is the real culprit here.
It's not like SkyMall was some creaky dinosaur, plodding along contentedly unaware of the Internet.
In 2009, SkyMall's website generated $80.5 million in revenue, making it one of the top 200 e-commerce websites in the world. Add in about $50 million in magazine revenues (about the same amount the company reported bringing in from the magazine in 2000, according to a Travelocity magazine report) and the company was generating an estimated $130 million in revenue annually just half a decade ago.
A 2013 Atlantic article cast heavy doubts on SkyMall's then-recent merger with the Phoenix-based Xhibit Corp, a company it said "raises all sorts of red flags."
The Atlantic didn't see good things in SkyMall's future, but that had nothing to do with a loss of public appetite for talking picture frames and replica 1957 Chevy Bel-Air convertibles with 3.5 horsepower gas engines that could safely transport a person weighing up to 250 pounds.
So maybe there was an element of mismanagement behind SkyMall's demise.
This seems possible, but I can't help thinking there's something even more insidious at work here -- maybe the death of the place where the world could always go (well, at least since 1990) to satisfy its impulses for iFetch ball launchers for dogs and Slankets ("Best Blanket Hands Down") signifies the diminution of something even sadder -- our senses of humor.
With air rage, anxiety and traveler frustration at worrying levels across our increasingly tense skies, maybe it was inevitable that those easy laughs and stolen moments of inflight frivolity would finally go the way of complimentary blankets, pillows and cocktails.
Flying's not as much fun as it used to be, we all know that, and with the passing of SkyMall, it just got a little unfunner.
Adios, SkyMall. Whatever journey you're embarking on, I'm pretty sure you're going to get there with a few more laughs than we will.
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