AirTran tries to make money like an internet company

If they can’t make money taking passengers from one place to another, maybe airlines can harness the power of eyeballs … you know, the way the web does. If you get enough people passing by a particular spot — physical or virtual — it’s possible to toss up a few ads and make some money. This is what AirTran has in mind. The airline is putting ads on the bottoms of seat-back tray tables. So, for takeoff and landing, at least, when this device is in its upright and locked position, passengers will be treated to prolonged exposure to the desires of advertisers.

AirTran plans to execute this across 138 planes within the next few weeks — it’s easy to pull the trigger when you stand to make some money by doing very little. The first ad partner, Mother Nature Network, is offering fliers the opportunity to win a cruise on Royal Caribbean. Future advertisers are expected to be travel-related, as well. The ads will be 2 ½ inches by 9 inches and will be easy to swap out, thanks to the plastic in which they will be encased. As planes are brought in for overnight service, they’ll be set up for the ads.

There is precedent for this move. For several years, US Airways has put ads on tray tops, but the rollout has been limited to only a few planes. Likewise, the cash from in-flight advertising isn’t all that high. US Airways pulls in $10 million a year from this, but it includes napkins, cups and some of the products carried onboard, not just the ads. Outside the United States, this practice is pretty common. Several airlines run ads to bring in a little extra money. Of course, Ryanair is among them, throwing ads on its overhead bins, tray tables and the outsides of the planes.

Will onboard advertising save the airline industry? It’s doubtful. The five largest airlines in the United States lost an aggregate $3.2 billion through the first nine months of 2009. They’ve tried combating this with extra fees and extremely aggressive cost-cutting, but nothing has really been successful. After all, a company just can’t cut its way to growth. The new advertising revenue could help, and it’s a revenue stream that will persist (and possibly grow) after the recession has receded.