America West was the first airline to do tray table advertising (in December 2003), a practice that moved over to US Airways on some aircraft. US Airways even experimented with ads on first class tray tables.
AirTran actually launched ads on the backs of the tray tables (at US Airways you actually had to put the tray table down in order to see the ad). United experimented with tray table ads as well.
This is subtle advertising compared to flight attendant announcements encouraging credit card signups on early morning flights when passengers are trying to sleep. I don’t actually see a problem with this. Some customers will see it as tacky, and will diminish the overall experience, but I’m not sure how much more diminished it can be in economy class.
On the other hand since it never spread to the entire US Airways fleet I have to think that advertiser demand wasn’t as robust as you might think considering the desirability of the airline passenger demographic and that you have a captive audience for quite some time.
Perhaps not enough customers put down their trays since airlines aren’t giving them food. However that would just suggest the AirTran model is the correct one.
Aren’t Larger Overhead Bins a Monetization Opportunity?
Airlines monetize nearly everything. They seem to believe nothing will chase customers away, that all passengers care about is schedule and price. So why don’t we see more tray table (or overhead bin) advertising?