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Ad Force One


Marketing at 32,000 feet.

Coming soon to the airline boarding pass clutched in your hot little hand: advertisements.

Printing advertisements on the boarding pass is part of airlines' continuing frantic search for new sources of revenue to offset higher fuel prices. Here's betting it will be less painful than getting dinged $15 to check a second suitcase.

The effort, initially adopted by Delta Air Lines (DAL), is scheduled to begin Tuesday on flights to Las Vegas. However, ads will soon appear on the airline's boarding passes to all domestic destinations.

Northwest (NWA), US Airways (LCC), Continental (CAL) and United (UAUA) will launch advertising programs in a few months. Sojern will sell the ads and split revenue with the carriers.

It's a good idea: Airlines will deliver a high-income audience to advertisers that may need a rental car from Avis (CAR), a hotel room from InterContinental (IHG), gasoline from Exxon-Mobil (XOM) or Chevron (CVX) and perhaps refreshment from Coca-Cola (KO) or Diageo (DGO). It's not difficult to imagine the boarding pass doubling as a discount coupon. Toss in some bar codes and you've got a marketer's nirvana.

The ever-genteel airlines say they don't want to annoy customers, but with oil recently fetching $146.15 a barrel, here's betting most travelers will grit their teeth if the ads hold ticket prices down.

But why stop with boarding passes? America West (AWA) and US Airways have already begun plastering their tray tables with ads from Visa (V), Mercedes-Benz (DAI), and Bank of America (BAC). Many major airlines, including Air France and Air Canada, have wrapped entire airplanes in ads - American Express (AXP) and Microsoft (MSFT) are just 2 of the firms who've already taken advantage of airborne advertising. And a clever effort might even achieve the rank of pop art.

Why not post ads on the overhead luggage compartments? In a fine display of good old American hucksterism, you could slap an ad right above that painfully small TV screen in the seatback 18 inches (or so it seems) from your nose? For more prurient types, why not slap an ad or two on the flight attendant's derriere, like those tasteful ones you see on Victoria's Secret (LTD) sweatpants?

Advertisements on the boarding pass won't yet be tailored to individual customers, but the glory of data mining may make that possible in the future. Travelers who print out a boarding pass on their computer at home will see information about their destination (weather, traffic, etc.) mixed with ads for restaurants and tourist attractions. The boarding pass will be kept to a single page, with something like Google's (GOOG) targeted ads running down the side.

It's hard to imagine travelers objecting to ads printed on boarding passes, especially if it helps hold down ticket costs. After all, millions of people survive an afternoon at the ballpark, where fans are constantly assaulted by sponsors. Even the program at the opera or symphony is choked with advertisements.

Now, if someone could just inject those Transportation Security Administration ninnies at Checkpoint Charlie with an ounce of courtesy and maybe half an ounce of intelligence. Listen up gang, it's just a ballpoint pen used to write the alphabet. You know: abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz - and no, that's not a secret code!
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