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The smile high club

What happened when a dozen singletons took to the air looking for romance? Kerry McKittrick reports on real high speed dating

It was an apprehensive bunch of twenty-somethings that gathered early in the morning in the departure lounge of Belfast International Airport. The six boys and six girls were dressed down in jeans for a day’s travel.

Schoolyard rules applied as the girls huddled on one side of the room and the boys stood on the other. All of them were surreptitiously checking out the other side and there was undboubtedly a hint of panic in the air. You could almost see the thoughts running through all of their minds. What on earth have I let myself in for?

This group of singletons had been gathered together by low cost airline bmibaby to take part in an unique romantic exercise.

They were being flown to East Midlands Airport and being treated to a day out in Nottingham with a difference. On the trip over they would all take part in the modern-day equivalent of a matchmaking session — speed-dating.

Dating in the modern era isn't what it used to be. Sure you can catch someone's eye across a crowded room, do the chat-up line, swap numbers and hope for the best. In these busy times though that's leaving too much up to chance. Many are too impatient to wait for Cupid's arrow and go looking for it instead.

Like blind-dating and internet-dating, speed-dating has in the past been deemed as fit only for those unlucky in love. However, the pressures of work, family, travel and every other tiny little thing mean that hunting for your possible partner no longer has the same stigma attached to it. Like everything else nowadays dating has been stream-lined and simplified.

Speed-dating is a great way to spend a night out. You meet lots of new people (of both sexes), have a few great laughs and you might even get a date out of it.

The six boys and six girls had been volunteered by their friends and colleagues to take part in what could have been the very first mile-high speed-date. Their ages ranged from 19 to 30 and their occupations ranged from student to civil engineer. What they had in common was that they were all single and all looking for love.

Emma Kirkpatrick (23), a personal trainer from Carrickfergus, had been single for a couple of months and had decided to come along for the experience: “It seemed like a light-hearted day out. I got really apprehensive close to the time because I didn't know what to expect,” she said.

The speed-dating itself took place on the outgoing flight — just as soon as the Fasten Seatbelt sign was turned off. On arrival the group were be brought into Nottingham city centre for a few hours of free time during which everyone could do what they liked; shopping, sightseeing or exploring the town.

Strangely every single one of the lads and lasses selected to take part in the outing were speed-dating virgins. None of them had done anything like it before and none of them had any idea what to expect.

The difference between this and any other speed-dating event, apart from the flight involved, was that it took place first thing in the morning without the complementary nerve-soothing glass of wine.

Many were bleary-eyed having risen at 6am or earlier to get to the airport where the complexities of check-in and boarding the flight provided some distraction from the impending trial.

As Judith Rance (30), a press officer, said: “Conversations at the airport were fine while we were waiting to get onto the plane. As the plane took off and we waiting for it to start — that's when I began to get really nervous.”

Judith, like many of the others in the group, decided to opt for the populist route: “I ticked everyone on my card, I didn't want to leave anyone out. You don't know if anyone will tick you back though, so I might not get any matches.”

Judith was quite impressed with the event: “Three minutes doesn't tell you much about someone other than what they look like. It definitely has its advantages over meeting someone on a night out though. You know that everyone is there for the same reason.”

Callum Rowden (19), a student from Wicklow, wasn't fazed in the slightest at the task. “I haven't been very nervous but then again I will normally talk to anyone so this isn't very hard for me,” he said. “I thought the craic on the plane was great and I ticked everyone. You never know what might happen.”

The flight began as any other would, with the usual kerfuffle of taking seats and storing bags. There was the added business of handing out dating cards and name tags as a beautiful sunny morning was dawning.

The flight time was just over an hour but between take-off, landing and seat belt signs, it left only about half an hour for the actual speed-dating. It worked very well. The girls stayed in their seats while the boys moved around every three minutes. The daters were provided with a list of potential questions to help break the ice. These included everything from What do you do for fun? to How would you spend your millions if you won the lottery? and even featured If you were an animal in the wild what would you be?

Jennifer Millar (19), a student from Lisburn, said: “I was nervous as we got started. I hate awkwardness so those questions were a good ice-breaker. It was much better craic than I had expected and I’d consider doing it again.

“Speed-dating has a much more negative reputation than it should do. This has been really good fun as well as being safe,” she added.

Not everyone was as impressed as Jennifer though. Donal Murphy (29), a civil engineer from Fermanagh, said: “I'm not sure if I would do it again although I did put down two matches on the form. It would be nice if a match happened but I normally prefer to meet girls in a club or pub.”

The speed-dating officially ended when the plane touched down. From the airport we were taken into Nottingham city centre where everyone in the group was free to explore, shop or sightsee for a few hours before the return flight to Belfast.

The speed-dating itself, though, had turned out to be the world's most effective ice-breaker. The 12 people who got off the plane were no longer nervous and giggling — now they were comfortable, jokey and relaxed with each other; boys and girls now mixing freely. The half-hour journey into Nottingham helped, too, and on arrival the group split into two. One half wandered off for lunch while the rest hit the shops. Even as the afternoon progressed everyone slowly drifted back together long before we were due to travel back to the airport. All were relaxed, full of chat and simply enjoying making new friends.

Mark O'Gormley (23), a sports student from Belfast, said: “I had no notions of what speed-dating would be like at all so I really didn't have any idea what to expect.”

He continued: “I've been single for a year and a bit and normally I meet girls through my friends. This was great though, I ticked two people and I would really be interested in seeing them again if they match with me.

“Speed-dating has a really negative image and I don't know why. I would definitely try it again, this has been a fantastic day,” he added.

So was love in the air on that bmibaby flight? Well everyone in the group got a match, that is to say they chose someone who chose them. Whether or not any dates will come out of it is now up to the individuals involved.

There was great excitement though when the group returned to Belfast International and one couple parted with a kiss. Emma had made only one match during the day and that was with Darren Pepper (21), a sports student from Portadown. She said: “I didn’t want to spoil anyone with lots of matches but I didn't expect to get a date out of it.”

One thing is for sure though, that group of 12 people had a great day out and friendships were certainly forged. At the airport Jennifer Millar even remarked: “I might not have found anyone I fancy but I've made loads of new best friends today.”

The fun didn't stop there either as many of the daters headed into Belfast city centre to hit the tiles. Perhaps for Emma and Darren though, it was love at first flight.

For more information on flights to East Midlands Airport from Belfast Inaternational go to www.bmibaby.com

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