UK airline sponsors Martina's gay rights credit card

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Forget the gold card. It's the pink card that now has financial clout. British Airways has entered the burgeoning gay and lesbian market in the United States by sponsoring a credit card that donates part of its profits to gay rights charities.

The airline has agreed a multi-year deal to support the Rainbow Card, a Visa card founded by the Wimbledon tennis champion Martina Navratilova.

The US-based card works the same way as a charity credit card: for every dollar the cardholder spends, about a cent is donated to charities that support issues of concern to the gay community, such as research into HIV.

BA is also sponsoring the annual Rainbow Card Leadership Award, a project that donates pounds 6,000 a year to a cause that benefits the gay and lesbian community in the US. The airline is the Rainbow Card's second sponsor, after the Subaru branch of Fuji Heavy Industries.

The airline says it has taken a pragmatic view that the spending power of the gay and lesbian community in the US cannot be ignored. "We view it as a niche that we should target in the same way that 18-30s and Saga groups are a niche," said BA spokesman Iain Burns.

"The American gay community is very open, accepted and sophisticated. Although getting involved is new to BA, the community has been targeted by American airlines for some years.

"We don't have a problem being associated with the card. We live in an age of openness and BA needs to be a part of that."

The card sponsorship is not British Airways' first association with gay and lesbian groups. Last year it joined the US-based Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, an umbrella group of travel agents that offers specialist holidays to gay groups. For the past few months BA has been selling African safari holidays to gay groups in the US. Its rival, Virgin, recently dropped gay package holidays after just one season because of a poor response.

British Airways has also accommodated gay rights in other ways. In 1995, it agreed that unmarried serving staff can nominate a relative or partner of either sex to enjoy cheap travel - about 90 per cent off the full price. Lesbian, gay and unmarried partners receive the same pension benefits as husbands and wives.

But it still tests pilots for HIV, arguing this is because all flight crew must be vaccinated against Yellow fever, which would threaten the health of someone who was HIV positive. Cabin crew are also required to submit themselves to tests if they believe they may have become infected.