July 15, 2008

Airlines Turn Boarding Passes into Ad Space

By Roger Yu

As a way to generate extra revenue, five major U.S. airlines will start publishing advertisements on the boarding passes that customers print at home.

Delta, Northwest, US Airways, United and Continental have signed contracts with Sojern, an Omaha-based start-up, to fill their printed boarding passes with targeted ads, coupons, restaurant and shop recommendations and other tailored lists of events. The information will be based on the destination and duration of stay.

Passengers who want to save on printer ink can still choose to print only the boarding pass, Sojern says. In the future, travelers will also have an option of saving their preferred activities and cuisine -- golf, Italian food, baseball, etc. -- on the airlines' websites and receive recommendations and ads based on the stored information.

"It's a tremendous opportunity to monetize with targeted personal ads," says Duane Woerth, Sojern's business development executive and a former head of the Air Line Pilots Association.

The boarding pass is the latest medium for travel ads that target road warriors, long considered a desired demographic because of their disposable income levels. US Airways already puts ads on tray tables, while advertising agencies have also targeted overhead bins and air-sickness bags with varying degrees of success.

Airports are hoisting ads on electrical outlet stations and baggage carousel conveyor belts. The Transportation Security Administration has approved selling ads on the bins used at security checkpoints.

Peter Yesawich, CEO of travel marketing firm Ypartnership, says boarding-pass ads could be effective if they contain "meaningful content." He says, "I'd be happier if the flight departs on time, rather than reading about a ballgame in a city I may not get to."

The deal is an additional income source for airlines, which are struggling with rising fuel prices and a slowing economy. All five airlines bought minority stakes in Sojern and will split ad revenue with the company.

Sojern is betting that the base of its targeted customers will continue to grow. Passengers are increasingly using e-ticket confirmations to print boarding passes at home or at airport self-help kiosks.

The company declined to reveal specific financial information, including the potential market size of its services. But Gordon Whitten, a former Intuit executive who founded Sojern, estimates about 40% of 700 million flight check-ins a year are conducted online. "That's 280 million blank billboards," he says, adding that passengers' stored preferences will be used only for the purpose of issuing the ads.

Frequent traveler Joseph Prunty, CEO of a business consulting firm in Pennsylvania, is skeptical. "I wouldn't trust the recommendations, and I never use coupons," he says. "(My) boarding passes only see the light of day when shown to TSA and the gate attendants." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>