American Airlines has quietly jumped into the increasingly crowded niche travel market with BlackAtlas.com, a portal tailored to African-American travelers. Combining the impact of social networking and the deep reach of a major air carrier, BlackAtlas may be U.S. aviation business’ most mainstream online recognition of the appeal of heritage tourism, and its understanding of a not-so-secret secret: black people travel, too.

Black travel Web sites are themselves nothing new. There are dozens of Web sites that slice and dice an African-American travel market estimated at more than $5 billion a year, according to Target Market News, a leading monitor of African-American economic trends.

American Airlines has put a spin on the idea in two ways: BlackAtlas, which launched Oct. 15, is powered both by commentaries from contributors — a nod to the emerging trend of user-generated content — and a strong use of videos to embellish the narrative. And while many other such sites are ad hoc creations of ambitious amateurs, or launched by various grassroots black travel associations, BlackAtlas makes travel by African-Americans a top-of-mind experience for the nation’s top domestic carrier in miles flown (about 243 million last year), and size of the fleet (more than 600 planes).

American seeks to capitalize on a growing market. A 2008 study by Packaged Facts, borrowing from U.S. Census data, found that there are 2.4 million African-American households with incomes of $75,000 or more. About 1.3 million of those households have incomes of $100,000 or more.

“We at American Airlines see BlackAtlas.com as an important connector, enabling an online community of travelers to share information about their favorite places for experiencing African-American and black culture, food, music, literature, history and events across the globe,” said Roger Frizzell, American’s vice president for corporate communications and advertising, told Target Market News.

American brings a celebrity vibe to the site; author, screenwriter and essayist Nelson George is the site’s “Travel Expert-at-Large” and guide for travels through (so far) Milan and Los Angeles.

BlackAtlas makes a big deep-pocketed splash by virtue of its connections with American, and that’s part of the problem. The ties to American necessarily limit travelers to what AA offers in the way of flights. Only 15 international destinations are listed on BlackAtlas, and not one is on the African continent.

For a portal devoted to the African American traveler, that’s a meaningful omission. In recent years, black travelers have frequently taken trips to Africa on family pilgrimages meant to connect them to their ancestral origins, in remembrance of the Middle Passage. Visits to Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, have shown great appeal to black Americans seeking to witness firsthand the island’s slave fort, and the wrenching experience of seeing the “Door of No Return” where untold Africans were sent to the ships that carried them to uncertain fates across the Atlantic.

So it’s curious why BlackAtlas doesn’t include in its roster any of the destinations in Africa that American either services directly, or through other carriers by “codeshare” agreements (when you buy a ticket from one airline and travel on another).

Despite its obviously self-promotional flavor, BlackAtlas recognizes both the growing sophistication of black travelers with online tools, and the economic power of African-Americans with travel on their minds. The University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth estimates that total black American buying power is expected to top $1 trillion by 2012. With that kind of clout found in a bloc of increasingly affluent black households, this portal’s likely to have company before long.