American Airlines

Marketing the Rainbow

The first

American Airlines (AA) was the first airline to choose for LGBT marketing in 1994, and a mere USD 300,000 budget resulted in increased revenue of over USD 190 million by 1999 .


AA is still leader in the field of LGBT marketing (although this may change due to the merger with USAirways). For close to two decades, AA has been a pioneer in implementing fair-minded policies and practices for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) customers and employees. AA remains the most gay-friendly of all U.S. airlines through its generous partnerships with the LGBT community, as well as its loyalty and respect for customers, employees and shareholders, and unflagging commitment to diversity.


“We know that all passengers, including gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, have many choices when it comes to travel. We want your loyal business and we will work to earn it.”


The “pillows and blankets incident”

What started with the so called “pillows and blankets incident” , has developed into a full-force, committed LGBT policy across the board: sensitivity training, equal benefits and a platform for the employees, and a number of ongoing marketing initiative towards the customers.


This incident concerned a flight in April 1993, returning to Dallas/Fort Worth after the March on Washington. A crew member on board sent a fax to the ground staff, requesting a change of pillows and blankets due to the number of “activists returning from the gay march on Washington” on board. The unstated but clear implication was the potential HIV/AIDS risk from the unusually high proportion of gay men aboard. The fax was soon leaked to news outlets, and went ‘viral’.


A subsequent incident concerning a passenger with AIDS added to the general discontent about American from the LGBT community (an acronym not even widely used at the time). American’s parent, AMR Corp.’s Board quickly took action, and went the extra mile to show their LGBT employees and customers that they had made a mistake that would not happen again. In doing this, AMR was one of the first companies in the US in acknowledging LGBT’s!


The Rainbow Team

American instituted a dedicated Rainbow Team, initiated by Rick Cirillo and headed by George Carrancho: “To maintain our lead, we go beyond buying ads and building pride-parade floats, and offer the community useful services. Our events calendar lists as many gay-themed national events as we can, from Human Rights Campaign dinners to rodeos, and it's a major draw for visitors. We offer special discount codes if you book travel whether we're a sponsor or not. Whatever the event is, we want you to fly American Airlines to get there. At the end of the day, this is a bottom-line decision."


Other feats include:

  • First major airline to have a company-recognized LGBT employee resource group - GLEAM. Formed in 1994, GLEAM’s mission is to work with management and to reach out to allies and other employee groups to embrace the principles of fairness, acceptance and diversity in all company policies and programs.
  • First major airline to implement same-sex domestic partner benefits (2000).
  • First major airline to implement both sexual orientation (1993) and gender identity (2001) in its workplace nondiscrimination policies.
  • First major airline to endorse the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (2008) as well as the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act (2009).
  • First major airline to launch a dedicated LGBT-specific website (now only available in Spanish) complete with comprehensive LGBT event calendar, consumer newsletter and booking engine, (November 2006) and first LGBT site for booking leisure and vacation travel to gay- welcoming destinations (November 2005.)
  • Admirals Club members are eligible to purchase “spousal” memberships for their domestic partners on an equal basis with heterosexual married couples.
  • First Fortune 100 company to establish an entire gay and lesbian national marketing and sales team: The Rainbow TeAAm. The team consists of travel specialists working with gay and lesbian community groups and national and local organizations to expertly handle travel needs and benefits.
  • One of the leading corporate members of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) - the world’s leading gay and lesbian travel association.
  • American Airlines is a founding corporate member of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, as well as the first and only airline today to include LGBT-owned businesses in its supplier diversity program.


AA started a marketing program aimed at gay business travelers in 2005. Its efforts include establishing sponsorship deals with Gay and Lesbian Chambers of Commerce; AA has been the official airline sponsor of various chamber conventions. They are also the official airline for many LGBT organisations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, IGLTA, Trevor Project, National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce, PFLAG and many others.


They were the first airline national advertiser on LGBT cable network LOGO in 2007.

In 2008 they ran athe “Fly Forward” print campaign featuring retro styling and two men walking off a "Casablanca"-style airplane to what looks like a Hawaiian vacation -- although some gay sources noted: what gay man would wear socks with loafers? There also was a female version. This advertising campaign won top award for Best Print Advertisement from the IGLTA in 2009.




They earned the perfect score of 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. By 2009 it was the only airline to achieve this distinction every year since its start (2002) - a distinction they still held in 2015. They also received the PlanetOut Award for “Airline of the Year” (2006 and 2007) and a score of other rewards from the LGBT community.


In 2010, they ran outdoor advertising at bus stops and subway stations in New York showing two men on a beach with the slogan: "Here's to his and his beach towels. Proud to support the community that supports us."



Note: American Airlines has also increased its marketing to other minority groups. For example, it has sponsored organizations like the United Negro College Fund and the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce and they appointed a director of women's sales and marketing in 2006.


Negative effects

From my research, when asked if their campaigns also had negative effects: When American Airlines began its outreach and heightened visibility in the LGBT market and community, they were met with stiff criticism and targeted through advertising and pushback from anti-gay political organizations. They braced themselves for the onslaught and recognized that this harsh response was short-lived and insubstantial, and did not lessen their engagement, commitment and maturity as a corporate leader in diversity, inclusion and acceptance.

One of the two major LGBT Ad Campaigns American Airlines Ran in 2011

American Airlines' sponsoring of Dallas Pride in 2009.

Case study: American Airlines

Branche: Travel

American Airlines has merged with several carriers since its formation in 1930 (which itself happened by a merger of 82 carriers). These have included Trans Caribbean Airways in 1971, Air California in 1987, Reno Air in 1999, Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 2001, and US Airways in 2015 to form the largest airline in the world. The latter obviously was the most important one, and greatly influenced the policy of the company. It is as yet unsure if or how the LGBT programme will be continued.

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