Who are the Delta gays? How the airline became a haven for the LGBTQ community.

When Ben Baxter listens to Viola Davis’ deep yet melodic voice – one that extols the benefits of seeing the world on Delta – he can’t help but be mesmerized. Davis, the iconic Academy Award-winning actress, has been a voice for Delta’s ads on and off since 2017.

“Gay men have an acute sense of identifying and latching onto ‘star quality,’ and that is also so palpable once you set foot on a Delta plane,” Baxter told me.

Then, there’s Ryan Scheb, a New York City-based teacher who popped the question to his now-fiance, Phil Tuzynski, inside the LaGuardia Delta Sky Club.

“I've always loved Delta; my first flight was on the airline back in 1995, and I just kind of always found them to be a step above,” Scheb said.

Baxter and Scheb belong to a group known as the “Delta gays,” as I call them. They are a fiercely loyal and very vocal contingent, especially on social media. For years while living in New York and now, Los Angeles, I observed – both in person and online – how Delta became the favored airline in the circles of gay, male-identifying (and predominately upper-middle-class) urbanites.

What was Delta doing that other U.S. airlines weren’t? I set out on a mission to answer the question of how Delta has seemingly captured something so elusive in the gay male community: long-term loyalty.

I ended up finding that, well, it’s a complicated “situationship.”

How Delta became the 'it girl'

Delta’s reputation, seemingly, as the “it girl” gay male carrier is a relatively contemporary development.

In the ’90s and early aughts, Delta didn’t market heavily to LGBTQ+ travelers. That crown belonged to American Airlines.

After a controversial AIDS-phobic incident onboard a flight in 1993 and subsequent backlash from the community, American vowed to win back the LGBTQ+ audience. It did so by becoming an official sponsor of several U.S. Pride parades, the first for a major airline.

“American stands out as the most dedicated and consistent of the carriers,” said Michael Wilke, the founder of AdRespect, a site that rates and catalogs LGBTQ+ advertising.

American also became the earliest U.S. carrier to implement same-sex domestic partner benefits and to include gender identity in its workplace nondiscrimination policies.

However, a major shift transpired in the late 2000s.

As Delta began the process of merging with Northwest Airlines, executives in Atlanta wanted to become a much larger carrier and a better carrier. To market those efforts, Delta brought on an ad agency powerhouse, Wieden + Kennedy, famous for its work with big culture labels like Nike and Coca-Cola.

The agency introduced the “Keep Climbing” tagline, which is still used today. At that time, Delta started to position itself as a premium, more inclusive, and, yes, more progressive airline. And so it began.

Going ‘premium’

“From a marketing perspective, Delta evolved with the times better than other airlines, including American,” said Ed Salvato, an LGBTQ+ tourism expert and marketing professor at New York University. “They started doing the promotion to attract the LGBTQ+ audience, but more importantly, they invested in customer satisfaction.”

That investment included major enhancements, like becoming the first U.S. carrier to offer fully lie-flat seats with direct aisle access in business class on all widebody flights. Delta very much likes to toot its own horn as the “premium” airline, building a reputation over the years through operational reliability, service, and better-than-average airport lounges.

Salvato is convinced that Delta’s focus of “associating with luxury” is what drew the gays in.

Delta’s multiyear partnership with American Express – which lasts at least through 2029 – is not only lucrative for the airline but also reflects a certain high-end image. It seems like heavy metal credit cards with lounge access will do that.

And the proof is there: an internal Delta document from January 2024 shows that the airline’s LGBTQ+ customer base has doubled in the past decade, now 12% of total passenger volume.

Delta executives declined my request for an interview to talk about their inclusivity efforts, but a spokesperson offered the following statement: “Delta is a proud, long-time supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, and we want everyone to feel welcome when flying with us.”

Two gingers and a rule of culture

In recent years, a Delta ad depicting two ginger-haired men (who we can only assume to be a couple) was plastered all over jetbridges at Delta hubs nationwide. One is laying their head on the other’s shoulder as they both watch a video together.

Peter Schlesinger, a Delta loyalist and an associate director of digital based in New York, has a unique social media tradition when boarding.

“I started taking selfies with the guys (in the ad) when my boyfriend missed our flight, so it was a joke about finding new Delta friends instead. And then I just kept doing it,” he said.

In queer pop culture, Delta also has made the rounds. Take, for instance, “Las Culturistas,” a comedy podcast series hosted by “Saturday Night Live”’s Bowen Yang and actor-comedian Matt Rogers, both gay men.

In each episode, Yang and Rogers declare, in perfect unison, certain statements to be "Rules of Culture." One of those rules, specifically rule number 43, asserts that “Delta is the queen of airlines.”

A crack in the gay facade?

For what it’s worth, though, Delta’s actual product these days may not be quite matching its luxury image.

“For premium travelers, the airline simply no longer has the edge,” said Ben Schlappig, a travel expert who runs the website One Mile at a Time. “Delta has less legroom in first class than competitors, an uncompetitive business class hard product on (select aircraft), and lines out the door to use many lounges.”

Schlappig, who identifies as gay, believes that other major U.S. airlines have narrowed the gap on Delta in terms of operational reliability and service.

Then, there’s this analogy. A friend and frequent flier once told me that “Delta is like Equinox,” explaining that like the high-end gym, the airline offers nearly the same products and services as others in a slightly more polished package, which gives the illusion of luxury and affluence.

In other words, it may not matter if Delta’s experience isn’t quite as good as the marketing indicates. Over the past decade, flying Delta has become something of a status symbol. And for gays, status, exclusivity, and community are often enough.

Chris Dong is a freelance reporter focusing on timely travel trends, loyalty programs, hotels and aviation. When he’s not on the road, Chris calls Los Angeles home after nearly 10 years in New York City. You can follow him @thechrisflyer.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Delta Air Lines made inroads with the LGBTQ community