Airplane sounds -- Travel fast and have fun with a range of tunes from classical sounds to MTV countdowns

You step onto an airplane, plop into your seat, and fork over a few dollars for a headset. Before the screening of Steel Magnolias or Look Who’s Talking you scan the channels, hearing snippets of Chopin, Barry Manilow, country hits, or the voice of a businessman discussing real estate opportunities in the ’90s. You try to relax and ponder that conference, those vacation plans, or that reunion with a loved one, never giving any thought to the music filtering out of the headset or how it got there.

And there’s no logical reason you should; passenger-seat music, as it’s known in the business, is meant to be innocuous. The realities of in-flight audio are anything but. One of the most underestimated entertainment industries, it reaches a captive audience of millions every day, possibly influencing which albums passengers buy and bringing in millions of dollars annually. By contrast, the New Kids on the Block merchandising empire is truly kids’ stuff.

Airline music is also as much a bellwether of mass tastes as any record sales chart or MTV countdown. Harboring any doubts that Bonnie Raitt and the B-52’s have overcome has-been status to emerge as icons? Just look at how they pop up on this summer’s in-flight schedules. Unsure whether world-beat music has infiltrated the mainstream? Look no further than all the ”world music” channels sprinkled with Ofra Haza, the Gipsy Kings, and Jimmy Cliff. Don’t believe that classic rock has become the big-band music of the baby-boom generation? Check out the channels dotted with the Doors, Neil Young, and the Beach Boys.

”There’s a science to it,” says J.N. White, 52, manager of promotional media for Delta Airlines. ”It’s not just audio chewing gum.”

John Doremus would have agreed. In 1964, when he was a Chicago deejay, Doremus created a company that pioneered the idea of airline music; his first client was United. In those days, one programmer recalls, in-flight audio was ”a lot of big bands and not a whole lot of Beatles.”

John Doremus Inc. is no more, but its founder’s dream has been carried on by a half-dozen international companies. These firms — such as AEI Music Network’s Inflight Division, America’s leading airline music programming company — charge airlines between $18,000 and $35,000 a year to program as many as 12 channels of hour-long programs in categories such as ”A Touch of Classics,” ”Rockin’ in the USAir,” ”American-Style Country,” ”Accent on Germany,” ”Jazz Masterpieces,” and ”Softly Contemporary.” Licensing and royalty fees, which the airlines must pay to the record companies, songwriters, and artists, total six figures annually. One industry spokesman estimates that the airline music entertainment business is a $5- to 6-million-a-year enterprise.

And the airlines pay up gladly. ”Business passengers in particular find it very relaxing; it’s a good way to end a stressful day,” says Bob Clark, 51, specialist for American Airlines’ Inflight Entertainment department, who still speaks fondly of a medley of versions of ”Wind Beneath My Wings” compiled for his company.

”Relaxing” is the key word. The average passenger, according to a 1989 Air Transport Association survey, is aged 35-44. Music programmers feel that this audience wants fairly mellow fare — an assumption borne out by surveys that indicate easy listening ranks first on domestic flights (classical and pop are tied for second), while classical is the overwhelming choice of European and Asian travelers. Among the most commonly heard pop stars are Carly Simon, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, and Neil Diamond. This is also a world where, in the words of in-flight magazines, New Age label Windham Hill is ”a superb alternative to mainstream musical fare” and Lou Rawls has ”phenomenal range and charismatic stage presence.”

Though middle-of-the-road still reigns in the skies, the musical borders of airline music slowly began to erode in the early ’80s. ”When we started, we came out of the late ’60s-early ’70s music revolution,” says Marcy Beaubelle, 39, vice president of AEI Inflight. ”There was a new awareness of music in the population. It was more in their blood than any previous generation.”

AEI Inflight, located in Orange, Calif., was founded in 1982 as an offshoot of the Seattle-based AEI Music Network, which supplies tapes of relaxing pop to restaurants, stores, and Navy submarines. Today, armed with more than 4,500 LPs and CDs and a constant flow of new albums supplied by record companies, AEI Inflight’s four-person programming department selects music for 21 airlines, including American, Delta, Pan Am, TWA, United, Continental, USAir, Hawaiian Air, and Air Force One (which uses United’s programming). Thanks to AEI and its competitors, it’s possible to stumble upon entire channels devoted to the Allman Brothers Band, the Rolling Stones, or Van Morrison, as well as programs sprinkled with the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Mitch Ryder. ”The ’60s — that’s a very, very good format,” burbles Jeffrey Borgeson, 35, AEI’s manager of programming services. ”It’s classic material, and the demographic is amazing.”

The Doors’ Jim Morrison most likely didn’t have the word ”relaxing” in mind when he wrote ”People Are Strange,” a recent selection on USAir’s oldies channel. But reducing once-rebellious rock to fly-time Muzak overlooks the bigger picture. At a time when some people are advocating warning labels for records and linking music with teen suicide, here is a group that believes pop music can bring travelers together, make them unwind, and, in the process, alleviate their fear of being trapped in a pressurized cabin 35,000 feet up. ”There’s always been the feeling that airline music is boring,” says AEI programmer Cary Ginell, 34, who focuses on country, classical, and celebrity interviews. ”When I tell people what I do, I get a little laughter and they say, ‘Oh, that’s like elevator music.’ But I say, ‘Next time you’re on a plane, look at the in-flight program and see what we’re playing.”’

Every 60 days — the length of an average programming cycle — AEI’s Beaubelle and Borgeson confer with representatives from each airline they service. AEI throws out a bunch of ideas — pinpointing the last time an airline had an oldies program or suggesting specialty channels such as ”Car-Tunes” (songs about cars). Then Borgeson and his staff get down to business, combing their record library and the pop charts and compiling lists of songs for each category.

At that point, programmers run into rules stricter than those at West Point. According to Borgeson, it’s not wise to start a channel with a ballad or to program three consecutive ballads; ”you might lose the energy” of that channel, he says. New Age is gaining a cult in the friendly skies, but, warns Beaubelle, the ”real spacey” stuff won’t fly. Not surprisingly, rap and heavy metal are out — too noisy, too unsettling. ”It has nothing to do with the personal taste of the airline,” Delta’s White says, ”but with the tastes of highly educated passengers.”

There are also restrictions on controversial lyrics, country music (no cheating and drinking songs, which, Borgeson notes, eliminates ”about 90 percent” of the genre), and comedy (nothing rowdier than Newhart and Cosby, and no airplane jokes). ”No Dice Clay in there, nope,” he says. ”You don’t want to offend anybody. It’s touchy up there.”

Adding to programming difficulties are the airlines’ individual requests. Each carrier receives a custom-designed tape tailored to the company’s ”image.” For its business clientele, Delta adopts a serious feel, hence recent programs on Al Jolson and John Philip Sousa and more emphasis on talk shows. Pan Am requests a complete two-hour opera for its overseas flights. Continental, eager to please its younger customers, is known as the hippest of the major domestic carriers; this summer passengers will hear the New Zealand rock band the Chills, k.d. lang, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

After the tapes are compiled, they are sent to airline representatives who review them for songs and lyrics. Once they’re cleared, the tapes are installed beneath the cockpit, from which the music is piped through the aircraft.

But all is not turbulence-free in the airline music business. Some aspects of its programming are as questionable as the chicken parmigiana served on board. Take the plastic pneumatic headsets common to most airlines. Everyone hates them, from programmers who complain about their tinny sound to airline workers who gripe that the darn things last barely a year — if they’re not stolen or abused. But don’t expect changes; overhauling an aircraft’s music system is considered too costly.

”Putting in an expensive electronic headset is like putting $100 speakers on a $5.95 radio,” Delta’s White contends. ”You have to have a matched system.” Yet others feel that as soon as one airline upgrades its sound system — which could be within the decade — the rest will be forced to follow.

Then there is the matter of certain programming being thinly veiled commercials. It is no secret, for instance, that the talk shows with such titles as ”Elements of Negotiation” and ”Spreadsheets Made Easy” are, for the most part, paid advertisements for the companies doing the talking. PIA, a Chicago-based radio and television syndication company, earns $5-$6 million a year programming such shows. And according to Brian Kelleher, vice president of PolyGram’s special-markets department, record companies that want an entire channel devoted to one of their artists often pay at least five figures to the programming company for the privilege. ”It’s a reasonable figure, especially for the amount of exposure,” Kelleher says.

But to criticize airline music for being impure — or to discount the medium, period — is akin to carping that Madonna doesn’t have a technically good voice. By telling us what music will and will not fly, airline audio becomes a barometer of changing tastes and social mores, a sort of national radio station. And in both music selections and profitability, the sky may be the limit. ”After the fare wars settle down,” one programmer says, ”the next battle will be fought in the interior of the cabin.”