In the Aviation Industry, the LGBTQ+ Experience Just Keeps Getting Better

Airlines have stepped up as some of the most vocal supporters of queer causes

TripSavvy / Alison Czinkota

It’s Pride Month! We’re kicking off this joyous, meaningful month with a collection of features completely dedicated to LGBTQ+ travelers. Follow along on a gay writer’s adventures at Pride around the world; read about a bisexual woman’s journey to The Gambia to visit her staunchly religious family; and hear from a non-gender-conforming traveler about unexpected challenges and triumphs on the road. Then, find inspiration for your future trips with our guides to the best LGBTQ+ hidden gem attractions in every state, amazing national park sites with LGBTQ+ history, and actor Jonathan Bennett’s new travel venture. However you make your way through the features, we’re glad you’re here with us to celebrate the beauty and importance of inclusivity and representation within the travel space and beyond.

It’s a fair assumption that reprogramming the culture of any trillion-dollar juggernaut industry would be a steep climb. But according to insiders, aviation is one of those industries that continues to make genuine strides toward inclusivity, showing fervid support for the LGBTQ+ community in particular. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. The aviation landscape has long been dominated by cis-gendered white men, who traditionally valued a consumer base that looked a whole lot like fellow executives perched up in their corporate cockpits. Luckily it seems as if this insular mindset is running out of fuel.

With the rise of gay rights movements worldwide, aviation companies have stepped up as some of the most vocal supporters of queer causes, promising workspace equality and getting involved with the community to assuaging doubts that’s it’s all just rainbow-washing to profit off Pride Month.

Among the most formidable driving forces push for inclusivity in aviation are organizations run by the very people fighting for equality on the ground—and in the air. Since it was founded in 1990, the National Gay Pilot Association has become the largest and most influential group of LGBTQ+ professionals and enthusiasts in the world. But NGPA is much more than just a tight-knit community of like-minded aviation nerds who also happen to be queer. The nonprofit strives to make a long-lasting difference through its Inclusion Training Team, a volunteer-based brigade that partners with myriad companies around the globe to develop impactful awareness initiatives and facilitate how inclusive themes can be incorporated into existing workplace training programs. NGPA’s standout work with brands like United Airlines and WheelsUp is a harbinger of a new era in LGBTQ+ friendly aviation.

“Including a rainbow flag in branding is not enough to engage this consumer,” said Thomas Fry, the director of growth marketing and public relations at Wheels Up, the second-largest private aircraft operator in the U.S. Fry contends that members of the LGTBQ+ community are among the savviest consumers in the marketplace when it comes to corporate social responsibility—and they know authenticity when they see it. “LGBTQ+ campaigns must support and give back to the community in some way,” he added.

Fry, along with the company’s first-ever chief growth officer Stephanie Chung (she was also the first African-American president of a major private aviation company when she landed her previous role at JetSuite, now Superior Air Charter), brought forth numerous unprecedented efforts to spotlight Wheels Up’s commitment to the community, like the first-ever photoshoot that featured LGBTQ+ talent and a formal partnership with the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGTLA). “Having the consumer see themselves in an authentic way is so important for building brand preference, trust, and loyalty,” he said. “This is a strong signal that we are creating a safe space and are committed to supporting the community.”

Diversity initiatives at Wheels Up come from the inside out. The company is also amplifying proactive recruiting to diversify its candidate pipeline, teaming up with organizations like the NGPA, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and Women in Aviation International. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s arguably good for business. Over the last few years, the purchasing power of the LGBTQ+ community has become so robust that the term “pink money” was created to spotlight the untapped potential of this high-spending demographic.

To better understand the target customer, Fry looks forward to the 2020 United States census results, which was the first census to include a question on LGBTQ+ identity. “The LGBTQ+ community spends nearly $100 billion in annual domestic travel and makes up approximately seven to thirteen percent of the population. With the new census, we will have much greater accuracy in terms of data,” Fry explained. “If you include those who identify as a member of the community along with allies, we make up a substantial percentage of the population.”

According to Fry, on average, every member of the queer community has three to four straight allies joining them in their efforts to fight for equality and representation. “We know the younger the person, the more likely they are to identify as LGBTQ+ or consider themselves an ally,” he said. “With the growth of this segment and the impact in the business opportunity, we know that sending a message of inclusion to this community presents a win-win scenario for us all.”

There’s no better way to gain trust from LGBTQ+ consumers than listening to community members who are proud to work for a progressive aviation company.

Mark Terzano, a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, has been obsessed with aviation ever since he was a young boy when he would zip around his house acting like he was an airplane, pin his sketches of airplanes onto the walls, and pretend to be a pilot with his little sister as the first officer. However, it wasn’t until after he kicked off a job in fashion that he realized an aviation career was really what he desired. After five years with Delta, Terzano can’t imagine doing anything else. He’s even on track to obtain his pilot’s license with the company’s support.

“Who knows what the future holds? All I know for sure is that you’ll find me in the sky for years to come,” he reflected. “What I love about this job is that it is very accepting, no matter who you are. Being gay is not a rarity in this industry. I’ve found that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, bi, or transgender, just as long as we all get our work done, drama-free.”

Still, there’s always a possibility to encounter homophobic microaggressions or flat-out discrimination from passengers in a service-oriented role. “You see them all, and you deal with them all,” Terzano said. “When you interact with people from different cultural, political, and religious backgrounds, having humor and wit along with an unwavering sense of seriousness helps when you land in an uncomfortable situation.”

He recalled a particular experience that began as his crew rushed to close the cabin on the last flight of the day to a Florida city when a passenger muttered “faggot” under his breath as he was boarding. Caught off guard, Terzano collected himself, then approached the unruly man. “I just kindly looked at him and asked where he was going,” he said. “The guy looked a little confused as he answered ‘Florida, duh,’ to which I responded with a smile, ‘Did you still want to go? Because that kind of language is unacceptable on this plane. Unless your behavior changes real quick, you might not make it to Florida tonight.’ He later apologized and kept quiet the whole flight.”

Ultimately, what Terzano most appreciates about his job is the open-minded mentality of his coworkers and the aviation industry as a whole. Whenever uncomfortable situations arise, he knows that his fellow crewmembers will have his back, from the pilots to the gate agents and even the company at large. “I think the LGBTQ+ community is so large in the aviation industry that it would be wrong for the airlines to not support us,” he said. “That’s what is so great about this industry. You work with so many different types of people: queer people, straight people, transgendered people, religious people, people from all over the world, and all different walks of life. The more people you meet, you realize that we really are all more similar than we are different.” It’s an “aha” moment sweeter than a free upgrade to first class.