The death of Black Atlas

American Airlines’ online attempt to reach out to the black travel market quietly fades away. Was it just a casualty of the airline’s merger with US Airways — or its own scattered focus?

Four years ago, American Airlines brought forth on the Internet Black Atlas, a social media site that boldly proclaimed itself to be “your passport to the black experience.”

That passport has been revoked.

When you try to log onto BlackAtlas.com today, what you will see instead is this:

“Thanks for visiting BlackAtas.com. We’ve got a new flight path…aa.com”

“aa.com” is the default Web site for American Airlines. The message goes on to say that “BlackAtlas.com will become a part of the larger American Airlines travel community, and we hope you will continue to visit.”

Which is fine, except that you can’t visit Black Atlas…at all. It’s gone, history, past tense.

According to American Airlines spokeswoman Dori Alvarez, Black Atlas shut down April 29, but AA execs made the decision to pull the plug on the site late last year.

Ms. Alvarez also said the decision came entirely from within American’s management, not US Airways, American’s new senior airline partner.

“The merger itself did not impact this decision,” she said. “Rather, it is part of American’s new global strategy. We are focusing on more actively engaging all of our customers using American’s own communication channels, including aa.com, email and other digital / social media programs.”

That bit about “using American’s own communication channels” is telling because Black Atlas was not an American Airlines creation. It was put together for the airline by what Ms. Alvarez would describe only as “an outside vendor.”

Right from the jump, Black Atlas seemed to be swaggering through a minefield, from the moment it branded itself as “your passport to the black experience.” If you were born black in America, you’re already living the black experience. Do you need an airline to take you to it?

Probably not.

The goal for Black Atlas, as stated on its home page, was to become “the premiere destination for sophisticated African-American travelers.” Such travelers had little real need for such a site. How does digitally preaching to the proverbial choir grow your share of any market?

In strategic terms, the site seemed unfocused. Was Black Atlas trying to bring in new black travelers, or encourage more trips by its existing ones?

I was especially put off by what came across to me as condescension, as I said in my initial look at Black Atlas:

“At the risk of exposing myself as a less-than-sophisticated African-American traveler, why would I be hunting around Moscow for blues music, or jerk chicken in Milan or injera bread in Oslo? That makes about as much sense as Southern rednecks coming up to Harlem to look for tobacco-chewing contests, or German classical music fans looking for Beethoven concerts in Compton.

Are we really so insecure that we need to seek out reflections of ourselves wherever we go in the world? I’ve said it before on this blog and it bears repeating: If I’m that desperate for a taste of “home” when and wherever I travel, I’ll just stay home.”

When you looked at the site, it was hard to tell what it was trying to accomplish. In the end, it didn’t accomplish enough of anything to ensure its own survival.

The “outside vendor” may have made a mess of Black Atlas, but American itself is hardly blameless. A lot of people never even heard of the site until now.

How much effort did American put into marketing and promoting it to prospective black travelers? How much of its advertising budget went into touting Black Atlas in black newspapers, magazines and Web sites around the country?

Few, if any, of America’s cash-strapped black publications would’ve turned down a steady stream of ads for Black Atlas…and Internet users will view even a bad site at least once.

Still, the fact that you miss a shot doesn’t mean the shot wasn’t worth taking. The black travel market in the United States currently is worth between perhaps $40 billion a year.

As large as that figure may sound, it’s chump change when measured against the total estimated purchasing power of black America: $1.1 trillion.

Being in the business of moving people by air, American could hardly be faulted for wanting a piece of that — especially since, as we now know, the airline was treading in deep financial waters.

The travel industry as a whole — not just AA — has been struggling to find an effective way to reach out to black Americans and get them to travel. Thirteen years into the 21st century, the struggle continues.

You could argue that Black Atlas was a bad idea badly executed — and I’d probably agree with you. But American Airlines’ goal of tapping into the black American travel market was and remains perfectly “legit.”

It’s that goal that should remain the focus, because in a nation whose people are among the least traveled in the developed world, we are among the least traveled of all Americans.

And in the 21st century, that needs to change.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
Attention, black folks: American Airlines likes you! No, really!

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2 thoughts on “The death of Black Atlas”

  1. Hi, you wrote, “The black travel market in the United States currently is worth between perhaps $40 billion a year.”

    I was wondering where you got that stat? I would love to use it in the future.

  2. Hi Sherise–

    Sorry to be so long replying. Got that stat from several sources basing on an estimate of total African-American spending power of $1.1 trillion. Since then, however, I’ve seen a new one from a source I trust that calculates the $1.1 trillion figure won’t be reached until 2015 and downgrades the travel portion of that to about $6.4 billion, so it’s hard to know who to believe at this point. That source was Target Market News. At this point, I would go with the $6.4 billion figure. Though much smaller, it’s still a sizable and valuable market.

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