American Airlines

Marketing the Rainbow

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Negative effects

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

2011: Connect at a higher level

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.


American Airlines, Inc. (AA or AAL) is the world's largest airline headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. AA was started in 1930 via a union of more than eighty small airlines. Together with its regional partners, it operates an extensive international and domestic network with almost 6,800 flights per day to nearly 350 destinations in more than 50 countries. AA is a founding member of the Oneworld alliance, the third-largest airline alliance in the world.

The first

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

For close to two decades, AA has been a pioneer in implementing fair-minded policies and practices for its 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’.

The Rainbow Team

AA 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 (Gay Lesbian Employees of American). 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. The group participated in the It Gets Better project. It was renamed PRIDE in 2014.

An early ad

This 1999 ad was called "All the Queen's Horses and All the Queen's Men" and featured British Beefeaters and a closing text that reads, "So book your clients on service fit for a queen," originally created for mainstream travel agents, took on a very different meaning when it was used in the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association's annual meeting program book!

American A girls

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

2008 Fly Forward

In 2008 they ran the “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.

Corporate Policy

Their Inclusion and diversity page is not very elaborate, but states i.a. "We proudly support the LGBT community and we're taking steps to ensure equality for all employees." There are 20 Employee Business Resource Groups, one of which is "PRIDE (LGBT and Allies)".

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." The campaign was repeated in print in 2012.

Over the years, many Pride events were sponsored around the world. The 2019 celebrations of 50 years Stonewall were given ample attention

Twitter celebration and clapback

In 2015 they strongly supported the marriage equality movement in the US. They joined the "friend of the court" brief in support of the court case and celebrated on social media after the verdict

When AA changed their logo into a rainbow one the occasion of Pride Month, Nathan Lorick, the "Director of evangelism for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention", criticized the airline, but got shut down. 

Quite contradictory, AA donated USD 46,617 to Mitch McConnell’s 2020 campaign. He is known as a virulent enemy of LGBT and was actively blocking the Equality Act from becoming law. In total they donated USD 900,000 to Democratic candidates, USD 760,000 to Republicans and USD 94,000 to "Others": quite clearly in an attempt to appease all sides.

Note: AA 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.


In spite of a few missteps and dubious decisions, American Airlines has been a staunch supporter of the LGBT community for a long time now, and can serve as a role model for other major corporations. They get a score of 8/10.

Mexico City
Mexico City

2014: Memorable journeys should start before takeoff

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 2021. They also received the PlanetOut Award for “Airline of the Year” (2006 and 2007) and a score of other rewards from the LGBT community.

A print ad from 2007 subtly includes the HRC logo in the overhead signage. A similar joke was later played with the rainbow. 

2008: 40 Years of Outstanding Support

2008: Visiting Friends?

  • 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 (NGLCC), as well as the first and only airline today to include LGBT-owned businesses in its supplier diversity program.

2006: Fly Your Way with AmericanAirlines

AdRespect: "Though it resisted actual advertising for years while it courted the gay market through sponsorships and events, American's first online ad campaign, carried on in 2000, touted its place in the community."

The beginning

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.

2000: Everybody's Something Special

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!

Soon after, the company announced a long-term commitment by becoming the official airline of gay events and organizations. They published this i.a. with "A new partnership".

Ads over the years

Article was last updated May 25, 2022

Gay vague

In 2007 AA released a series of somewhat strange but funny commercials (one was called "A Good Face Licking"), that were apparently meant for the rainbow community - as the pay-off shows the URL for the rainbow section of their website (now defunct). AdRespect qualified these as "gay vague".

Hiring practice

In 2014 AA became the first airline to directly recruit staff on an event of the NGPA (the largest organization of LGBT aviation professionals and enthusiasts from around the world). Lesbian pilot Janice Anderson tells this in her personal story, being an AA pilot for over 20 years. 

AA called in the help of Witeck-Combs Communications, a strategic communications firm in Washington specializing in LGBT and diversity communications. Bob Witeck quickly worked with the airline to help repair LGBT relations with the company, both internally and externally. American took Witeck’s recommendations: sensitivity training, equal benefits for same-sex unmarried partners, a platform for the employees, and a growing number of marketing initiatives. Nearly 25 years later, Witeck still counts American Airlines as one of his clients.

Case study: American Airlines

Branche: Travel