Giving a new meaning to the phrase “walking down the aisle,” on Monday, December 6th, weddings for one gay couple from Germany and one lesbian couple from Poland took place on SAS Airlines flight SK903 traveling from Stockholm to New York.
Within the first 20 minutes of the flight, after the fasten seat-belts signs were turned off and while the plane was still in Swedish airspace, a Swedish representative from the European Parliament presided over two brief marriage ceremonies.
The sky-high nuptials took place in the business class cabin with a large, heart-shaped floral wreath as backdrop, first for Aleksandar Mijatovic and Shantu Bhattacherjee, a gay couple from Germany, and then for Ewa Tomaszewicz and Gosia Rawińska, a lesbian couple from Poland.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Sweden since May 1, 2009 and while same-sex couples may enter registered partnerships in Germany, they may not do so in Poland. “So this ceremony is not only for us,” said Ewa Tomaszewicz who first met her partner, Gosia Rawińska, on a soccer field and got to know her through spirited political debates on the internet and, later karaoke. “It’s also a small victory for all those who believe that one day in Poland we’ll have a normal country where everyone who loves each other can just get married.”
For the in-flight wedding, as in many traditional weddings, rings and teary personalized vows were exchanged, toasts were made, champagne was poured, a first dance was danced, and a multi-course wedding dinner was consumed. Finally, a multi-tiered wedding cake was rolled out to be cut and tasted by the wedding couples before the dessert was served to guests.
Airline as wedding planner
Scandinavia airline SAS is owned by the governments of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, which were amongst the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage or partnerships. SAS spokesperson Anders Lindstrom says it was because of that, and because of the widespread focus on love created by the wedding of Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria earlier this year, “It just hit me that SAS should be the airline to host the world’s first same-sex wedding in the air.”
To choose which same-sex couples would be married on the historic flight, SAS created a “Love is in the air” social media contest and launched it in September, 2010. 300 couples from around the world, many from Poland and other countries where same-sex marriage is forbidden, entered the contest and campaigned aggressively for supporters and votes on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere.
“We’ve been living together for six years and wanted to be married in an interesting way. So for six weeks of our lives we reduced our normal work so we could promote ourselves,” said contest winner and newlywed Aleksandar Mijatovic. “We had very good competitors,” added Mijaztovic’s husband, Shantu Bhattacherjee, “They inspired us to do more and push ourselves forward so we did videos and promotions on the internet, in magazines and newspapers. It just grew bigger.”
More than 450,000 visitors viewed the airline’s contest site and more than 350,000 unique votes were cast. As top vote-getters, the couples from Germany and Poland each won an in-flight wedding, designer wedding rings and other gifts, and a honeymoon package in New York and Los Angeles. (A couple from North Carolina also won a trip to Sweden that includes a land-based commitment ceremony and honeymoon package.)
Publicity stunt or meaningful marketing?
While SAS is the first airline to host a same-sex, in-flight wedding, it is not the first to reach out to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. In the United States, that community includes about 16 million adults, or about 6.8% of the country’s population. And, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the LGBT community spends an estimated $70 billion a year on travel, or about 10% of the U.S. total.
Air New Zealand’s Pink Flight, in 2008, celebrated the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and featured live performances by drag queens, music, contests and screenings of classic gay-themed films and was emceed by comedienne Kathy Griffin.
In May, 2010, JetBlue’s JetPride flight #1969 flew from San Francisco to Long Beach to celebrate Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride, a major pride celebration. The flight number commemorated the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the birth of the pride movement, while in-flight festivities included entertainment, gift bags and pink cocktails.
When he learned that SAS planned to host a same-sex, in-flight wedding event, Ian Johnson, founder and CEO of the marketing and consulting firm Out Now Global, asked event organizers if they planned to include feather boas, drag queens “and other stereotypical elements too often associated with ‘gay’ promotional events.” He was relieved to learn that nothing of the sort was planned.
“Their whole approach recognized this is not a game. It is about real people, real lives and their genuine love for each other. The SAS approach has been clever from a marketing standpoint, but far more importantly consistently respectful throughout to offer recognition and support to provide a life-changing memory for the winners of the competition.”
Clark Massad, European ambassador for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), a major gay and lesbian travel trade association, agrees. As SAS flight SK903 began its descent into Newark Liberty International Airport, Massad said “Today there are a lot of companies going for the gay or ‘pink’ dollar and they think it’s sufficient to just hang a rainbow flag outside their business. Well, it’s not. And we can take a lesson from how sincere SAS was in conducting this same-sex, in-flight wedding.”
“It’s been like a fairy tale,” said SAS newlywed Shantu Bhattacherjee, “Alexsander and I both lost our mothers several years ago. But it’s nice to be married up here, close to them in the clouds where they have the option to be here and be part of the ceremony.”
(All photos by Harriet Baskas. This story was prepared for msnbc.com.)