Pride Flights: How airlines are celebrating the LGBTQ+ community at 35,000 feet

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From Virgin Atlantic to United Airlines, carriers across the globe are embracing ‘Pride Flights’, transforming air travel into celebrations of the LGBTQ+ community.  

Not only do these flights offer passengers the chance to be part of a vibrant and joyous in-flight party, but they are also a reminder of the importance of WorldPride and advocating for inclusivity across all aspects of aviation.  

The flights are usually staffed entirely by LGBTQ+ crew members and include a host of Pride-themed activities, decorations, entertainment and sometimes even special guest appearances and goody bags.  

So, to mark WorldPride 2023, which takes place across the month of June, AeroTime took a closer look at how airlines across the globe are embracing the movement and the emergence – and importance of – the Pride Flight. 

From London to New York: The first-ever Pride Flight

Four years ago on June 28, 2019, Virgin Atlantic flight VS69 from London to New York became the first-ever Pride Flight, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 1969. It included special guests onboard such as drag queen Courtney Act, singer MNEK, activist Tree Sequoia, and witnesses of the riots. 

According to a first-hand account of the historic journey published by Forbes at the time of the flight, the cabin manager welcomed travelers by saying: “You are not just passengers today. You are making history on the first World Pride flight.”  

Passengers at London-Heathrow Airport (LHR), were greeted with rainbow-colored cupcakes and drinks before check-in. On board the plane, LGBTQ+ crew members distribute commemorative tote bags filled with pride-themed goodies. Once seatbelt signs are off, the music begins to play, and specialty gin-and-juice cocktails are served to keep the spirits high. The exhilaration remains even when the plane, met by cheers and welcoming shouts, lands, marking the beginning of WorldPride 2019 in New York City. 

And history certainly was made, with Pride Flights becoming a new tradition – and not one that is limited to a specific region or airline.  

From the United States to the Philippines, airlines are stepping up to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community. United Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Virgin Atlantic, and Air New Zealand are just a few of the airlines that operate Pride Flights.

Pride Flight popularity soars 

The initiative has swept the aviation industry with airlines across the globe joining in, launching their own Pride Flights. 

In 2021, Alaska Airlines unveiled its new Pride plane, an Airbus A320-200 with a Pride-themed livery featuring rainbow-striped airplanes. The US airline organized a “Parade in the Sky” that started in Seattle and made stops in Portland, San Francisco, and San Diego.  

United Airline’s inaugural Pride Flight took place later the same year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first recorded case of AIDS in June 1981 and departed three days after World AIDS Day. The flight number, UA 1991, was named after the year when the red ribbon was first used as a symbol of remembrance for those impacted by and lost to the AIDS crisis. 

Taking to Facebook on December 7, 2021, United Airlines said: “We’re bursting with PRIDE! United’s first-ever all-LGBTQ+ crewed flight flew from New York/Newark to Chicago on Saturday. Our LGBTQ+ Business Resource Group EQUAL arranged this one-of-a-kind flight to honor the LGBTQ+ community worldwide, as well as within our United family.” 

Virgin Australia has continued to offer special domestic flights to mark Pride since its inaugural flight in 2021. To mark the celebration in 2023, the airline is teaming up with United Airlines to offer special flights connecting US travelers with the world’s largest Pride celebration in Sydney.  

Cebu Pacific, a low-cost airline of the Philippines, operated its first Pride flight on June 5, 2023, staffed by LGBTQ+ members and allies, with passengers treated to Pride-themed giveaways and games.  

Air New Zealand celebrated WorldPride 2023 with the world’s highest drag show at 35,000 feet in February 2023, providing onboard entertainment and direct flights from Auckland and San Francisco to Sydney. 

“The flights are part of our wider mission to tautoko (support) employees and customers who are part of the Rainbow community and advocate for inclusion,” Air New Zealand general manager short-haul airline, Jeremy, said in a statement.

What does a Pride Flight entail?

Pride Flights turn air travel into a celebration of love, equality, and diversity. The festivities begin on the ground and can often include speeches from airline executives.  

A moving example was Constance von Muehlen, chief operating officer of Alaska Airlines, when she openly shared her experience of being a lesbian leader at the company during the airline’s inaugural “Pride in the Sky” event in 2021​.  

Pride flights might include: 

  • Full LGBTQ+ crew: The flight is staffed entirely by crew members who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. This includes pilots, cabin crew, and ground staff. 
  • Themed entertainment and activities: Pride Flights often feature special onboard entertainment such as live performances, DJ sets, dance parties, drag shows, and themed games. 
  • Special decorations: The aircraft may be decked out with rainbow decorations or other symbols associated with the LGBTQ+ community. 
  • Themed food and drinks: The flights may serve special meals or cocktails with a Pride theme.  
  • Charitable component: Some Pride Flights also have a charitable component, raising awareness or funds for issues important to the LGBTQ+ community. 
  • Community support: These flights are a way for airlines to express their support for the community, promote diversity and inclusivity, and create a fun and welcoming atmosphere for all passengers. 

The details can vary depending on the airline and the specific event being celebrated.  

It is also important to note that while these flights are celebratory and inclusive, they also serve as a form of protest and advocacy, highlighting the need for ongoing efforts towards equality and acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community in all aspects of life, including travel. 

Historical discrimination

The LGBTQ+ community has historically faced discrimination in the aviation industry, both from a professional standpoint and as travelers. 

David Cooley, the owner of West Hollywood bar and restaurant The Abbey, experienced this first-hand in 2018 when Alaska Airlines asked his partner to change seats so it could prioritize a straight couple. The airline attributed the incident to a booking error, but the incident just served to further highlight the need for systemic change​​. 

In another instance, Qantas faced backlash over a 2015 incident where staff asked traveler Merrin Hicks to switch seats to accommodate a straight couple even after her partner, Kristina Antoniades, had explained they had an equal right to sit together. The airline issued an apology and offered the couple vouchers​. 

In 2021, CNN reported that China Southern Airlines flight attendant, Chai Cheng lost his job in 2019 after footage of him kissing a pilot while off-duty was leaked. 

More recently, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines was targeted by an ‘anti-woke’ group on June 1, 2023, over its support and promotion of the LGBTQ+ community, forcing them to take legal action to take down a website and local billboard taking aim at airline’s diversity practices.  

“These groups and individuals have begun to target businesses, especially those businesses that uphold their values of diversity and inclusion and stand with our community,” said Jared Todd, spokesperson for Human Rights Campaign, an American LGBTQ+ advocacy group, in an email issued to Dallas News.  

“They’ve said that this is about making Pride and inclusion ‘toxic.’ The throughline, from a historic year of anti-LGBTQ legislation to backlash against companies, is the same tired playbook of fear-mongering and bullying that we’ve experienced for decades now,” Todd added.  

Diversity, acceptance, and pride!

The benefits of Pride Flights extend beyond the passengers on board. They serve as a beacon of support for the LGBTQ+ community, celebrating their contributions and acknowledging their struggles. 

The aviation industry, traditionally dominated by cis-gendered men, (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least 95% of pilots employed in the US in 2022 were men) is experiencing a cultural shift towards inclusivity. As society evolves, industries are expected to do the same, and aviation has been making meaningful strides in this regard.  

Key players like the National Gay Pilot Association (NGPA), founded in 1990, have become instrumental in driving change. The collaborative effort has already seen United Airlines stepping up its inclusivity goals, indicating a promising new era in aviation​. 

“NGPA is excited to kick off pride month by celebrating its scholarship program’s silver jubilee—a momentous milestone representing 25 years of awarding scholarships to aspiring aviators serving their LGBTQ+ community. We are incredibly honored to receive United Airlines Aviate Academy’s generous support, as well as additional support from NGPA’s individual donors and corporate sponsors,” Justin Ellixson-Andrews, NGPA executive director, stated on June 8, 2023. 

As the saying goes: “It’s not the place. It’s the people.” Pride Flights are a powerful demonstration of how the aviation industry recognizes this sentiment and aims to support its LGBTQ+ crew members and passengers.  

Here’s hoping that Pride Flights continue to soar.

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