When I first heard of airTroductions, an online dating and networking service that matches frequent air travellers with similar interests, I thought it the best idea anyone had had since the invention of the chicken nugget. Business air travel is deathly tedious – why not liven it up with a little flirtation?

But then two things happened to change my mind: (1) I flew for work and (2) I went on a blind date.

On reflection, the former was more tolerable than the latter. Even though the man on my left spent the entire journey coughing up phlegm, and the woman on my right had no concept of personal space and more or less fell asleep in my lap, at least I could shut my eyes and pretend I was elsewhere.

During the latter I remained horrifically alert throughout, as my date wittered on about herself for three hours, revealing the intellectual capacity of a badger (“Oh, I didn’t realise Catholics and Protestants were both Christians”), the personality of a cement mixer (“I can’t say I like reading much – I prefer going to the gym”) and the inquisitiveness of a chicken nugget (she asked two questions in total).

It seems I had forgotten a key fact about business air travel and dating: they are both, in general, arduous. Combining them is a terrible idea. In fact, it is difficult to think of a worse venue for a first date than an aircraft: there is no privacy; the lighting makes you look awful; you cannot take the edge off your nerves by getting plastered; and, worst of all, you are stuck next to your date, no matter how unattractive, dull or maniacal they turn out to be, for the length of the flight. The only conceivable upside is that at least you know they will not be carrying any sharp instruments.

Wondering what the founder of the website, Peter Shankman, a public relations executive from New York, was thinking, I got in touch with him earlier this week. To be honest, it was not the most comfortable e-mail correspondence: throughout, Peter referred to me as Samantha and made use of emoticons such as :-)
– which gave me the impression he was trying to flirt with me.

Nevertheless, I did manage to get him to explain how he came up with the idea for the site, described by one commentator as a cross between expedia.com and friendster.com. “Samantha,” he wrote. “Four years ago or so, I was on a flight from Houston to New York and I wound up sitting next to Miss Texas 2002. My four-hour flight [felt like] 11 seconds. It occurred to me then that if you could have some control over who you sit next to, the trip could be a lot more fun!”

He continued by explaining how the website worked: you create a profile; you enter your flight itinerary; the system detects whether any other members are on the same flight as you; the system e-mails you if there are; you pay $5 if you want to contact them. So far, Peter added, “about 20” people had paid – “not bad [given we] only have about 2,400 people [registered] on the site so far :-)”.

I am sorry :-( but I disagree. While a match rate of 0.8 per cent is not surprising – given that more than 15m flights depart around the world every year, the probability of sharing an itinerary with another airTroductions member is going to be low – it is not very good at all. In fact, it confirms what I suspected about airTroductions: it is a silly idea.

Indeed, the website encapsulates what I have suspected for some time about the online dating industry, one of the internet’s biggest success stories: it is going through a phase of madness not dissimilar to the madness that afflicted the entire dotcom sector a few years ago.

As offerings become increasingly niche – there are now specialist dating sites for everyone from Christians to tall people, asexuals, vegetarians, smokers and even self-confessed philanderers – they are also becoming increasingly absurd. Over the internet now you can arrange dates in the dark, speed dates in the dark, dates in silence. It is surely only a matter of time before some bright spark sets up a website that allows us to do many of these things in combination: silent speed-dating in the dark with a self-confessed philanderer on an aircraft, perhaps.

I realise that we professional business columnists are required by law to applaud the spread of enterprise but in this case I think commerce is having a corrosive affect. In New York, internet dating has become so prevalent that some women call it “man shopping” and “hyperdating”. Elsewhere, some people are apparently setting up more than 10 dates a week – in some cases, several on one night.

My fear is that the agencies encouraging such behaviour are turning something that should be fun into something intense, nasty, shrill and desperate. And they will not give up until all our love lives resemble the closing scenes of a Quentin Tarantino film.

I do not think I am alone in feeling exhausted by it all: according to Jupiter Research, in 2002 the US online dating industry’s revenues grew by 73 per cent to $224m, in 2003 they grew by 76 per cent (to $395m), but in 2004 growth cooled to 17 per cent (to $462m).

With any luck, this means that people are tiring of silly sites such as airTroductions.com and are returning to more traditional, romantic ways of meeting partners, such as “the quiet drink”, “the awkward grope on the dance floor” and, my favourite, “the drunken lunge at the person least likely to resist”.

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