Although rightsholders may have fewer brands to pitch, sponsorship activity in the airline category remains alive and well.

The airline industry has undergone a dramatic realignment over the past few years amid a whirlwind of mergers and acquisitions. Delta Air Lines, Inc. kicked off the consolidation wave in 2008 with its acquisition of Northwest Airlines, a move that catapulted the company into the ranks of the world’s largest carriers.

More recently, Southwest Airlines Co. last year acquired AirTran Holdings—the parent of AirTran Airways—while UAL Corp. and Continental Airlines, Inc. in 2010 formed a new company, United Continental Holdings, Inc.

Those mergers and acquisitions have resulted in the elimination of three brands, all of which were active sponsors: AirTran, Continental and Northwest.

And another major brand could soon hit the dust following another wave of consolidation: US Airways Group is reportedly exploring a merger with AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, the country’s fourth largest airline.

While consolidation has taken some brands off the table, the category’s remaining players remain active sponsors. As in the past, category hot buttons include building visibility in new markets, engaging business travelers, gaining business from sponsored properties and demonstrating community support.

Below, IEG SR highlights two trends in the airline category:

Increased focus on social media. Like just about every other category, airlines are placing more focus on social media as a sponsorship activation platform. That interest is driven in part by the growing number of consumers using Twitter and other social media platforms to gain information on flight status.

For example, Delta in April ran an Instagram promotion around its sponsorship of the NHL New York Rangers and the team’s playoff run. The promotion featured six active Instagram users that captured images of the game from locations within Madison Square Garden. MSG gave the photographers access to areas within the venue that are normally off-limits to national media.

“Social media lets us take a sponsorship beyond what anyone would have imagined five years ago,” said Mauricio Parise, Delta’s general manager, worldwide marketing communications.

Other carriers also are placing more focus on social media. United Airlines has incorporated a social media component into its new “Fly Me to London” sweeps around the 2012 London Olympic Games. In addition to a dedicated Web site, consumers can enter the promotion on United’s Facebook page by claiming a virtual seat on one of the carrier’s 17 daily nonstop flights to London.

More interest in charter business. While airlines have historically used sponsorship to gain business from sponsored teams, many are doubling down on the medium to access new revenue streams.

That’s a key driver for Delta, which has placed more focus over the past few years on providing charter service to sponsored teams.

“Teams have to travel, and we want to make sure that we’re providing transportation. A brand halo is important, but at the end of the day we have to think about the bottom line,” said Parise. 

In addition to teams, Delta also uses sponsorship to gain business from team cosponsors. For example, the carrier last month leveraged its partnership with Madison Square Garden and the property’s Garden Presidents Organization to drum up business for its private flight service.

Delta accomplished that task by hosting a GPO event at a hanger at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport. The event featured a keynote address by JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon and included Delta pilots and flight attendants. 

“Delta walked out with a handful of leads and new business they wouldn’t otherwise have had,’ said Greg Economou, MSG’s executive vice president for corporate sales and solutions. 


American Airlines
4333 Amon Carter Blvd.
Fort Worth, TX 76155

Dawn Turner, sports & entertainment marketing manager  

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The nation’s fourth-largest carrier has kept a relatively low profile on the sponsorship scene after filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2011. The AMR Corp. subsidiary has historically used sponsorship to generate sales among 25-to-54-year-old business travelers, with a secondary objective of supporting corporate marketing strategies. The company measures three criteria when vetting deals: media exposure, promotional elements and tickets for client entertainment. American also looks for category exclusivity and access to women, African-Americans and other targeted groups. The carrier will not sponsor properties whose packages are limited to banners and “transportation provided by” status. 

Current deals: Title: American Airlines Arena; Miami; American Airlines Center, Dallas; American Airlines Theatre, New York City. Cosponsor: Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County;  Advocare 100 Independence Bowl; ALSAC St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital ; American Ballet Theatre; American Cancer Society Relay for Life; Apollo Theater; Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.; Arlington Park, Arlington Heights, Ill.; AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic; Auditorium Theatre, Chicago; Austin City Limits Music Festival, Texas; Bank of America Chicago Marathon; Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas; Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl; BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.; Boston Ballet; Broadway in Chicago; Brookfield Zoo, Illinois; Carnival Miami; Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles; Chicago Children’s Museum; Chicago Flower & Garden Show; Chicago International Film Festival; Cystic Fibrosis Foundation;  Dallas Children’s Theater; Dallas Museum of Art; Dallas Opera; Dallas Summer Musicals; Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Discover Orange Bowl; ECHL Charlotte Checkers; Film Society Lincoln Center; Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; GI Film Festival, Washington, D.C; Goodman Theatre, Chicago; Greek Theatre, Los Angeles; Honolulu Marathon; ING Miami Marathon and Half Marathon; Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau; Miami Air & Water Show; Miami Book Fair International; MLS Columbus Crew and D.C. United; Nantucket Film Festival; National Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington, D.C.; Navy Pier, Chicago; NBA Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and Washington Wizards; Nederlander Organization; NFL Dallas Cowboys; 2K Sports Classic benefiting Wounded Warrior Project, New York City; New York City Ballet; NHL Dallas Stars and New York Islanders; Palm Beaches Marathon presented by Publix; Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.; Paramount Theatre, Aurora, Ill.; Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade presented by Honda & Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio; Point Premium Root Beer International Cycling Classic; Portland International Film Festival; San Diego Opera; San Francisco Ballet; Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure; Roundabout Theatre Co.; U.S. Fund for UNICEF; USA Wrestling; Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville, Ark.; Washington Ballet; Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, Vienna, Va.; Women Presidents’ Organization; WNBA Tulsa Shock.

Additional comments: Activates Susan G. Komen with Miles for the Cure fundraising program and the sale of co-branded gift cards, around which the airline donates $5 to the cause for every $50 of travel purchased.  Accepts proposals through 2011 passenger count: 86 million*.


Delta Air Lines, Inc.
1030 Delta Blvd.
Atlanta, GA 30320

Mauricio Parise, general manager, worldwide marketing communications

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The second-largest U.S. carrier uses sponsorship to accomplish one primary objective: engage business travelers through sports and other consumer passion points. The company over the last few years has placed more focus on activating ties with social media and gaining business from sponsored teams. While the company sponsors properties around the country—and world—Delta largely focuses on two key U.S. markets: New York City and Los Angeles. The airline last month activated its three-year-old sponsorship of Madison Square Garden and the NHL New York Rangers by flying fans from New York City to Newark, N.J. to watch the Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 against the New Jersey Devils. 

Current deals: Title: Delta Classic Chastain Park Amphitheater, Atlanta. Cosponsor: AJC Peachtree Road Race; All Things D conference, Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.; Atlanta Ballet; Atlanta Opera; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Bank of America Atlanta Football Classic; Beacon Theatre, New York City; Breast Cancer Research Foundation; Brigham Young University Athletics; Center for Puppetry Arts, Atlanta; The Chicago Theatre; Chick-fil-A Bowl; Children’s Miracle Network; Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival presented by Food & Wine; Fox Theatre, Atlanta; Fox Theatre, Redwood City, Calif.; Georgia Institute of Technology Athletics; GRAMMY Awards; Grandma’s Marathon presented by Wells Fargo & Toyota, Duluth, Minn.; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; James Beard Foundation Awards; Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Int’l; Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; Madison Square Garden; Make-A-Wish Foundation; MLB Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets and New York Yankees; NBA Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Utah Jazz; NFL Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans; NHL Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers; North American Int’l Auto Show; Principal Charity Classic presented by Wells Fargo PGA Tour stop; TED conference, Long Beach, Calif.; U.S. Ski & Snowboard Assn.; University of Georgia Athletics; Virginia Arts Festival.

Additional comments: Activates AJC Peachtree Road Race with Runway to the World sweeps and the U.S Ski & Snowboard Assn. with once-in-a lifetime hospitality events. Passenger count: 113.4 million.


JetBlue Airways Corp.
118-29 Queens Blvd.
Forest Hills, NY 11375

Marty St. George, senior vice president of marketing and commercial

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The nation’s sixth-largest carrier uses sponsorship to support local communities, strengthen its presence in existing markets and build visibility in expanding markets. JetBlue in 2012 inked a new partnership with the inaugural Hollywood Half Marathon to support its presence in Southern California. The company in 2011 announced an eight-year extension with the MLB Boston Red Sox; the tie includes title of JetBlue Park, the team’s new spring training facility in Lee County, Fla. JetBlue this year activated the Red Sox partnership with a team-themed themed paint scheme on an Airbus A320 plane. Sponsors marathons and other endurance sports events to promote healthy, active lifestyles.

Current deals: American Express presents Downtown NYC River to River Festival; Aquaphor New York City Triathlon presented by RCN; Boston Marathon; Broadway Across America—Boston; Hofstra University Athletics; Hollywood Half Marathon; Long Beach International City Bank Marathon & Half Marathon; MLB Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim; MLS Real Salt Lake; NBA Los Angeles Clippers; NFL Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and New York Jets; NHL Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers; Publix Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon & Half Marathon; SunFest, West Palm Beach, Fla.; Tribeca Film Festival.

Additional comments: JetBlue in January hosted a live performance by U.K. artist Ellie Goulding as part of the Live from T5 concert series at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Passenger count: 26.3 million.


Southwest Airlines Co.
2702 Love Field Dr.
Dallas, Texas 75235

Andy Allman, director, national strategic partnerships

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The largest U.S. carrier sponsors to engage consumers, demonstrate its community involvement and build visibility in new markets. Southwest in 2011 expanded its national footprint through its acquisition of AirTran Holdings, the parent of AirTran Airways. The carrier largely focuses sponsorship activity on a handful of key markets including Boston, Chicago, Denver and Philadelphia. The company has placed more focus on activating ties with promotions on behalf of its Click ‘n Save special offer and Rapid Rewards frequent flier programs. Activates SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment with a Shamu paint scheme on three planes and offering vacation packages through Southwest Vacations. Supports Country Throwdown music tour with a tie-in to the Boot Campaign, a nonprofit that provides assistance to veterans healing from physical and emotional wounds.

Current deals: Title: Chinese New Year Festival & Parade; Southwest Porch at Bryant Park, New York City. Cosponsor: California Capital Airshow, Sacramento, Calif.; Country Throwdown fired up by Kingsford music tour; Dallas Wind Symphony; Denver Chalk Art Festival on Larimer Square; EAA AirVenture Oshkosh; Georgia Aquarium; Girls Inc.; Grand Ole Opry; Live in the Vineyard; Loyola Marymount University Athletics; Make-A-Wish Foundation; MLB Baltimore Orioles; Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers; NBA Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns;  NFL Indianapolis Colts; Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival; San Jose Mexican Heritage and Mariachi Festival, Calif.; SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment; Sesame Place, Langhorne, Pa.; Student Conservation Assn.; Sundance Film Festival;  Taste of the Beach,  Walton County, Fla.; Triple-A Baseball Round Rock Express.

Additional comments: Southwest has replaced Air Tran deals with the Southwest brand. For example, the company earlier this year announced a new partnership with the MLB Milwaukee Brewers, a team previously sponsored by Air Tran. Southwest sponsors the Sundance Film Festival in part to expand its presence in TV and film productions. SeaWorld tie runs through 2015. Passenger count: Southwest: 110.5 million; AirTran: 24.5 million.


United Continental Holdings, Inc.
77 W. Wacker Dr.
Chicago, IL 60601

Kevin McKenna, managing director of brand marketing

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: United Continental was created following the 2010 merger between Continental Airlines, Inc. and United Airlines. The company uses sponsorship to boost market positioning and build relations with frequent business customers. The carrier is activating its tie to the U.S. Olympic Committee with the “Fly Me to London” sweeps that dangles trips to the 2012 London Olympic Games. The promotion offers two roundtrip U.S. flights to 17 winners to support the 17-day Olympic Games and the airline’s 17 daily nonstop flights to London. Frequently activates to support frequent flier programs. For example, United leverages the MLB Chicago Cubs by offering MileagePlus members the opportunity to redeem miles for behind-the-scenes experiences at Wrigley Field, trips to the team’s spring training camp and other unique experiences. Operates hubs in 10 markets: Chicago; Cleveland, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. Gains sponsor status of some NGBs as a result of USOC tie.

Current deals: Title: United Center, Chicago. Cosponsor: Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum; American Theater Wing’s Tony Awards; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Calif.; Breast Cancer Network of Strength; Broadway in Chicago; The Broadway League; Carnegie Hall, New York City; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands, Texas; Farmers Insurance Open PGA Tour stop; French Quarter Festival presented by Capital One; Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Houston; Houston Ballet; Houston Grand Opera; Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo; ING New York City Marathon; Insperity Championship presented by UnitedHealthcare; Joffrey Ballet of Chicago; John G. Shedd Aquarium; PGA Tour stop; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago; Lookinglass Theatre Co, Chicago, Make-A-Wish Foundation; March for Babies; MLB Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals;  Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago; NBA Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets; NFL Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos; Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins; New Jersey Performing Arts Center; NHL Chicago Blackhawks; Northern Trust Open PGA Tour stop; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum; Smithsonian National Zoological Park; State Theatre, New Brunswick, N.J.; Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago; Theatre Under the Stars, Houston; US Figure Skating; U.S. Olympic Committee; USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.

Additional comments: Agencies include Paragon Marketing Group and Chicago Sports & Entertainment Partners. Inked exclusive tie in 2011 with the MLB Chicago Cubs. Emirates Airline in 2012 replaced Continental as the official airline of the USTA U.S. Open. United passenger count: 50.4 million; Continental: 45.1 million.


US Airways Group
111 W. Rio Salado Pkwy
Tempe AZ 85281

Andrew Nocella, senior vice president, marketing and planning

Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The country’s fifth-largest airline largely uses sponsorship to support the local community in three primary markets: Arizona—the location of its corporate headquarters—and three hubs: Philadelphia, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C. “It’s a natural fit to pair up Charlotte’s hometown airline with the hometown team,” said Nocella in a 2010 statement announcing the company’s partnership with the NBA Charlotte Bobcats. The company has promoted the NFL Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles and other pro sports teams with special paint schemes on jets. Supports Make-A-Wish Foundation by allowing Dividend Miles members to donate frequent flier miles to the nonprofit.

Current deals: Title: US Airways Center. Cosponsor: Arizona Opera; Arizona Science Center; Arizona SciTech Festival; Arizona State University Athletics; Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, N.C.; Children’s Museum of Phoenix;  Franklin Institute, Philadelphia; Make-A-Wish Foundation; MLB Arizona Diamondbacks; NBA Charlotte Bobcats and Phoenix Suns; NFL Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers; NHL Philadelphia Fliers and Phoenix Coyotes;  Opera Company of Philadelphia; Pennsylvania Ballet; Philadelphia Theatre Company; Phoenix Symphony; Waste Management Phoenix Open PGA Tour stop.

Additional comments: US Airways is reportedly exploring a merger with AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines. Passenger count: 52.9 million.

*2011 scheduled domestic and international enplanements per the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The Big Three: Top Airline Sponsors
Company 2011 Spending
American Airlines $30M-$35M
United Continental Holdings $25M-$30M
Delta Air Lines $20M-$25M