No More SkyMall

Lamenting the demise of the world's best catalogue

Words: Lee Tulloch

SkyMall is no more.

I had a crisis of sorts last year on a flight across the USA. My iPad, loaded with issues of Vanity Fair, had died. And I’d just read the last sentence of Lena Dunham’s autobiography, Not That Kind of Girl.

This being an American airline, there was no in-seat video to entertain me. Instead, a movie I have seen and never want to see again was being played throughout the cabin. Bored witless, I had three hours of flying time ahead of me.

SkyMall to the rescue!

Twenty-five years ago, an American accountant called Robert Worsley had a lightbulb moment – why not produce a catalogue of popular items that could be perused on board a flight and ordered via Airphone so that the purchased goods were ready at the gate when the passenger landed?

That business model was a failure and the airport delivery service was dropped, but the concept of a magazine selling oddball items to a captive audience took off and the company managed to sell almost $100 million worth of novelty items each year.

I only wish mainstream magazines were as entertaining – there’d be no crisis in the print publishing industry. Anyone who has delved into the back pocket of the seat in front on a plane and pulled out SkyMall will know what I mean.

The catalogue was bursting with so many ridiculous items to purchase that it was probably the single greatest argument against Capitalism I know. Does one really need a toaster in the shape of a Darth Vader head that stamps ‘Star Wars’ onto the piece of toast as it is cooked, or a six-foot tall Easter Island head made out of resin for the garden?

Who in their right mind would shell out $15,995 for a ‘luxurious automated multisensory sauna’ or even $64.95 for a kit to have their pet’s DNA tested? A faux ivy trellis for $39.99? A blanket in a bacon print ($44.95)?

It was the Fire Hot Tub Fire Burning Portable Hot Tub in bright orange that really caught my eye.

The modern consumer, of course, whose credit card trigger finger is so twitchy, a few hours trapped in a metal cigar without the chance to exercise it is hell. Luckily, all that wasted time hurtling around in the sky could be put to good use – filling out an order form for a Men’s Padded Butt Enhancer brief ($35) or Premium Porch Potty for your dog ($279.99.)

Pet lovers were especially well served by SkyMall. Some things were darn near irresistible – a Serenity Cat Pod on stalky legs for $1000 or a Will Bark For Bacon dog T-shirt ($22). And there were plenty of excellent ideas for the traveller, including a Portable Security Door Device for hotel rooms with dodgy locks ($24.99) and the World’s Best Smart Travel Blanket, a polyester Snuggie that’s like a plush sleeping bag that allows you to cover your feet and head at night-night time ($49.99.)

But perhaps the appeal was all due to the lack of oxygen on the cabin? After half an hour of flipping through the catalogue, just about everything looked enticing, although perhaps not the Leather Beer Holster ($29) or the Voice Art kit for turning your spoken words (‘I love you’ etc) into sound wave paintings ($295.) The Remote Controlled Tarantula ($29.95) was also perhaps best left in its box.

In the end, it was the Fire Hot Tub Fire Burning Portable Hot Tub in bright orange that really caught my eye. This ingenious little pod was heated by firewood placed in a wire basket that was surrounded by metal coils that heat the tub water when it is pushed through the coils. It came with a ledge for drinks and the added bonus of being able to barbeque your lunch on the flame as you soak. If it hadn’t had the price tag of $3999.99 and a waiting period of at least 90 days – well, who knows, it might have been mine now.

Sadly, though, since my October 2014 journey, SkyMall has gone into bankruptcy, at least in paper catalogue form. Perhaps it’s only temporary as this recent article explains.

In the meantime,  you don’t need to fly to shop with SkyMall. There’s the website. But it’s just not the same. Especially when your iPad dies.

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