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From L.A. to Auckland, love is in the air

Lured by love and a great roundtrip fare, more than 100 Americans boarded Air New Zealand’s Matchmaking Flight  dressed to impress and ready for serious in-flight mingling.
Passengers played games and enjoyed other activities on Air New Zealand’s Matchmaking Flight.
Passengers played games and enjoyed other activities on Air New Zealand’s Matchmaking Flight.2009 Rick

Many singles have tried blind dates, a succession of first dates, online matchmaking sites and speed-dating events at bars, restaurants, churches and synagogues.

In terms of finding your perfect mate, all these strategies come with a fairly low buy-in, in terms of time, money and ego.

But Air New Zealand upped the stakes, declaring that one of its regularly scheduled 12-hour overnight flights from Los Angeles to Auckland would be transformed into a special Matchmaking Flight, complete with its own social media networking site, pre-flight airport party, in-flight hijinks and a ticket to a gala post-flight mixer attended by 150 single Kiwis.

Lured by love (or the possibility of it) and a great roundtrip fare to New Zealand, Carrie Niggli from Boston, Deedee Nantais from Honolulu, and more than 100 other U.S.-based singles ranging in age from 20 to way past 60 quickly snapped up all the available seats for the October 13 Matchmaking Flight and arrived at LAX dressed to impress and ready for some serious in-flight mingling.

Don’t stay seated
Pre-flight festivities were supervised by a winged “Love Goddess” and included drinks, snacks, music, a few rounds of speed-dating, and a very well-received dance performance by the entire matchmaking flight crew (including the pilots) set to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).”

During the flight, the crew served champagne and chocolates and led a few get-to-know-your-neighbor games, while Jason Mesnick and Molly Malaney, from TV’s “The Bachelor,” offered a few tips for meeting folks during the flight.

“Try doing what I told my kid to do on his first day at school,” said Mesnick. “Spend a little time playing, or in this case just talking, with everyone. You never know who’ll turn out to be someone you’ll want to be friends with.”

Steve Borgford, a 34-year-old substitute teacher from Bellevue, Wash., took that advice to heart. On the ground, he’s had little luck with speed-dating, online matchmaking, introductions from friends, and “just going up and talking to people,” but during the matchmaking flight he diligently made his way through the cabin chatting up as many other singles as he could. Thirty-one-year-old Jonny Martin, a New Zealander now working in Berkeley, Calif., spent most of his in-flight time chatting with his seatmate, who he was hoping to see again at the post-flight ball. And rumors flew through the cabin about the single pilot who made a post-flight date with one of the match-seeking passengers.

So when did airlines get into the matchmaking business?
Marketing and trends expert Rachel Weingarten says in-flight matchmaking “is a really playful way of offering more bang for your buck ... and it might serve to herald in a refreshed era of the travel industry trying to provide more than just a conduit from one place to the next.”  That’s why she and other experts say we’re seeing more airlines (think Southwest’s shorts-wearing, wise-cracking flight attendants) positioning themselves as “lifestyle carriers” intent on delivering in-flight frivolity along with fair fares.

Along those lines, Air New Zealand’s marketing manager, Kathryn Gregory, says the matchmaking flight fits with the airline’s goal of “putting the fun back in flying.”

Although it was marketed as the “world’s first” matchmaking flight, SkyEurope, the now-defunct, low-cost airline that was based in central Europe, experimented with speed-dating flights back in 2007. During the speed-dating sessions on those flights, women sat in reserved seats chatting for five-minute intervals with male passengers who had to change seats when a special signal was given. On Air New Zealand’s matchmaking flight, passengers were free to chat with whomever they wished for as long as they wanted.

Dr. Ian Yeoman, a tourism professor and travel futurist at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, doesn’t expect Air New Zealand to go into the official matchmaking business anytime soon but says hosting a matchmaking flight made a lot of sense. “Today’s world is all about niche marketing. And travel has become a meeting place for singles [he calls them singletons] who often travel in hopes of meeting someone special along the way.”

So be on the lookout, he says, for more themed flights and tourism campaigns targeted at those singletons, such as the successful 2007 Scottish Tourism Board campaign in which women from around the world were asked to vote on their favorite hunky Scot on a Web site featuring photos of men wearing kilts and authentic Scottish attire. With that in mind Yeoman, who just happens to be a single 44-year-old Scotsman, showed up at the post-matchmaking flight partyin Auckland wearing a kilt. And while he didn’t find a wife, he reports having had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Mary Major, a dealer at a casino in Everett, Wash., also went home from the ball without a match, but she has no regrets about flying all the way to New Zealand for the chance of meeting that special someone. “My friend said, ‘You’re 51 years old. If you don’t go now, when will you go?’ So I got my first passport and bought a new dress and new shoes. I got what I came for: a great time.”

Things worked out for 24-year-old Keisha Edwards, one of two nurses from Oregon who missed their chance to mingle on the matchmaking flight because their connecting flight was delayed. The two women caught the next (non-matchmaking) flight and arrived in Auckland in time for the ball. “I came with a list of things to do and getting kissed by a Kiwi was on my list. I took care of that tonight,” reported an exhausted but happy Edwards while waiting for the shuttle bus back to her hotel.

Andy Miller, 28, the smiling Kiwi that kissed her, says he was happy to help out. “I obliged, if only because I didn’t want to be responsible for causing an international incident.”

Harriet Baskas writes 's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , and a columnist for You can follow her on .