Et Tu, KLM?

August 26, 2015

THE MISGUIDED MASTERS of airline branding will not rest. Their apparent goal, which strikes me as a tad antithetical to what branding is supposed to be about in the first place, is to make each airline as indistinct as possible.

Rule number one, of course, is to make sure that your livery incorporates some sort of “in-motion” swoosh thing. Even KLM, the oldest airline in the world, couldn’t stay out of the swoosh contest. What, no curves in our livery? This can not stand! And so the designers got to work.

It could have been a lot worse, it’s true; they could have gone the route of so many others (see Royal Brunei, below) and bleached away the paintjob entirely. Give them credit for hanging on to KLM’s trademark bold blue. But was it really necessary to round out the nose like this? The straight-across effect was handsome; the dippy-do enhancement is unattractive and completely gratuitous, and it makes the entire plane look oddly unbalanced. It just doesn’t work. And it’s a strange form of half-gesture. Here’s an airline saying it sort of, kind of, wanted to jump into the swoosh game, but it was afraid to at the same time. The result is a hybrid of awkward excess. A classic example of not leaving well enough alone.

We can still love the KLM logo, however, a for-now unmolested design that belongs in whatever hall of fame exists for such things (mine, if no others). Three block letters, and a crown consisting of four dots and a cross. It’s everything a logo should be: simple, elegant, and instantly recognizable. Please don’t ruin it.

Like I said, it could have been worse. Let’s switch continents now and pay a visit to Brunei, the sultry sultanate whose hometown carrier, Royal Brunei Airlines, has unveiled a disastrous new look. The superseded livery, seen in the second photo, was worlds better. The engine slashes were perhaps a little garish, as were the extra yellow lines in the understriping, but the overall concept was dignified and distinguished. The new design is so anemic and boring that the entire plane seems to disappear before your eyes, the black bottom and white top providing a strange camouflage against the tarmac and sky respectively. And look at what they’ve done to the logo. The “RB” on the tail looks like the logo of a country club, or something that belongs on a can of beer. Come and taste RB, Southesast Asia’s finest ale. All in all, it’s an airline that’s afraid to be an airline.

Royal Brunei new livery 787

Royal Brunei old livery 777

Heaven help us.

For the record, I’m not entirely opposed to curves. There are a few swoosh-centric liveries out there that work, more or less. Thai Airways has an attractive one. And the all or mostly white fuselage can work too. Emirates and Turkish Airlines are excellent examples. For the most part though, the livery trend has been following one of two strategies. First, we see more and more overly complicated designs that rely on motion themes and/or multi-color textures. (See Avianca for one that does both.) These designs are often clever in and of themselves, but they all begin to look the same, and a clever or interesting design is often a terrible one from a brand identity perspective. Second, and no less common nowadays, is the template of utter blandness. Royal Brunei is hardly the only offender. I was going to include a picture of the new China Eastern, but it was just too depressing. Worst of the worst are those looks that incorporate both of these trends. El Al’s livery, for example, one of the more painful to behold, manages to be boring and gaudy at once.

Ah, for the days when airlines were airlines — the days of the cheat line, the proud tail and the unmistakable logo. I think the two-tone blue Eastern Airlines livery, on the white fuselage with the silver bottom, is maybe my favorite of all time. Let’s close our eyes and concentrate. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home…

Eastern 727 Classic

South African 747SP Classic

Air India 747 Classic

BA Classic 747

VARIG Classic 707

Lufthansa 747 Classic


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62 Responses to “Et Tu, KLM?”
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  1. Johannes Bols says:

    I grew up South of final to JFK 1962 to 1972. Liveries reflected the country of origin of the aircraft. Now the fuselages look like tubes of bloody toothpaste. Basta!

  2. Lee says:

    The thing I don’t get is, you look at the new American Airlines tail and you just know that someone has a serious drug problem. But no matter how many drugs I take it still looks ugly. Included with the ticket price should be a sample of the drugs the designer took, just to get me through the flight.

  3. Stephen Stapleton says:

    There will always only be one livery for me:

  4. EddieB says:

    That’s crazy. United Airlines in the 60s had the “swoosh” and nobody complained about it then.

    KLM’s B744s look good in all their liveries. My 2 cents.

    • Alan Dahl says:

      Are you referring to the Saul Bass designed “tulip” UAL logo? That didn’t appear until 1974 and was accompanied by a three-color cheat line that was totally straight, no swoosh line like the current KLM livery.

  5. Art Knight says:

    The KLM looks like the old cartoon duck Baby Huey, embarrassed (that’s a difficult word to spell) because he just soiled his diaper.

  6. Art Knight says:

    The South African plane looks like it just got away with a heist. I love the roguish, marauder look of the nose. The tail amplifies that vibe, saying “How do yo like me now?”

  7. Yosef says:

    I generally agree with your opinion of liveries, especially the royal Brunei, they’ve lost it!
    But I read on a Klm blog that the change came about a new plane they bought, I think it’s one of the Embraers, don’t remember why they has to change it, but they did it. Isn’t bad at all!

  8. Bok says:

    The reason the old liveries work so well is because they allowed the form of the plane dictate the livery, rather than forcing awkward shapes onto it. There’s a very real sense of dynamism (and adventure) in the minimal line work of yore. Read your book last year, loved it too.

  9. JK says:

    Hi Patrick:

    You’ll want to add Cathay Pacific to the list:

    Cathay Pacific – New Livery Launch

    The vermillion accent exuded class and style; without it, the new livery is utterly soulless (green, grey and white?!).



  10. Eric says:

    The United 787 is much too swooshy. Also too Continentally.

  11. Jack Sullivan says:

    I was at Jose Marti Airport in Havana last week and saw a 737 carrying an Eastern Airlines livery. Thought they went the way of the dodo twenty years ago. Did someone buy the livery to use on Miami to Havana charter flights?

    Jack Sullivan

  12. Olivier says:

    That south-african livery is gorgeous and clever: the nose job evokes the face mask of an african animal yet in a wonderfully understated way.

  13. Avinash Raghu says:

    Hello Patrick and everyone,

    This is my first time visiting this site and I must say it looks like a treat for aviation enthusiasts like myself.

    Regarding liveries – I’d be interested in knowing what your opinion is about the Braniff Airlines livery or in more recent times, Vietnam airlines.

    I personally think KLM and Air Force One are among the best liveries on the 747, a masterpiece of an aircraft the best lends itself to showcase liveries.

    Etihad and Qatar airways aren’t bad either. Gulf air is rather garish looking.

  14. Don Larsen says:

    I always thought the old SAS was pretty handsome, with the dragon longship cheat line, the name clearly spelled out, and shields of the three partner countries for a little splash of color.
    Now it’s just another meaningless corporate graphic.

  15. Vinny Noggin says:

    Liveries will only get you so far. And perhaps not safely.


    “American Airlines accidentally flew the wrong plane from L.A. to Hawaii last month”

    Time to bar code the planes? And bar code the pilots?

    And what about those pilots…did it not occur to them that they were on the wrong plane for that route? Too busy working on that killer book deal?

    Let’s take a time out for a truly stupid joke that won’t kill anyone:

    Q: What do you call a bagel that flies?

    A: A plain bagel.

    All serious questions that merit answers…

  16. Tim Spinotter says:

    All of our opinions about airline liveries and other visual arrangements are simply a matter of taste, and as we all know, “Des goûts et des couleurs on ne discute pas.”

  17. Marshall says:

    Oh man, that Landor livery on BA’s old 747s was pure elegance. I don’t mind BA’s current Pepsi can livery, but seeing a Landor 747 descend gracefully on final was like seeing an old Oxford don, a signifier of a Great Britain that you hoped existed.

  18. Dave T says:

    Too bad about the lost old ones cited. It hasn’t all been for the worse, however. United did get rid of that wrenched grey style (no, not from the same era as those in the post), perhaps the worst livery ever.

  19. Ben says:

    At least KLM did not do a complete makeover like many others did.
    The new Royal Brunei livery though looks like a giant Polo shirt.

  20. Stephanie says:

    Well, South African Airways _did_ have to rebrand itself after apartheid ended. The current livery looks good and the logo is a nice working of the post-1994 flag.

  21. Daniel Ullman says:

    ‘The “RB” on the tail looks like the logo of a country club, or something that belongs on a can of beer.’

    To me, it looks more like a logo for a 1950’s shirt manufacture.

  22. Tom Zimmermann says:

    PS. I still like Swiss Air. Keeping it simple..

    • Patrick says:

      I don’t mind the Swiss livery. It’s a little boring, but like you say, it’s simple — in a good way. It’s very, well, Swiss.

      Sorry to nitpick, but it’s Swiss, not “Swiss Air.” The original Swissair (also not “Swiss Air”) went out of business several years ago.

      I do miss the 1970s-era Swissair livery — the one with the red cheat line and the arrow logo, and the black eyeliner paint on the 747.

      • Thomas Zimmermann says:

        I suppose aircraft livery is no different to other things that ‘evolve’. Cars for instance, how much cooler are old cars compared to modern ones?
        Or music? There has always been rubbish music but as a child of the ’70s and ’80s I grew up with music made by real people playing real instruments. Today I would say at least 95% of music is plain crap.
        Maybe it is just a sign of ‘getting old’…

        • Patrick says:

          No, that’s just the excuse that younger people use for having such shitty tastes! Not EVERYTHING gets aesthetically worse over time, but airline liveries and popular music definitely are two things that have.

      • Rod says:

        Sorry, been away in Greece, where Olympic survives in reduced circs flying different versions of De Havilland twiprops between the islands and still bearing the Olympic rings on the tail, the fuselage being simplicity itself — very nice.

        As a Swiss, I guess I’m entitled to an opinion on the “Swiss International Airlines” (eeyeuh, what a mouthfull!). Swissair went out of business in the most disgraceful of circumstances, and *had* to not only rebrand but rename any later airline to keep its sorry ass out of court.
        I loved the last Swissair livery, with its double black and “chocolate stripe” cheat line.

  23. Mark Maslowski says:

    Patrick –

    I know you’re not a fan of the swoosh, but here’s example of someone who has committed to the swoosh big time!

  24. Siegfried says:

    Patrick, I think someone at Lufthansa must be a fan:

    though I personally like this one even better:

    If I’d be in charge, they would all be painted like that. And of course I’d bring back the Lufthansa Cocktail.

    • Patrick says:

      The 747-8 retro paint job doesn’t have the silver bottom, but it’s still great. I’m with you: the entire fleet should be painted that way.

      • Gene says:

        I watched the Retro 747 roll out of the paint hangar. Almost brought a tear to these old eyes.

      • Thomas says:

        The bottom of the 747-8 can’t be silver, because there are parts that are not made out of aluminum (actually light alloy; aluminum, magnesium, whatever… some kind of metal). On a 747-200 the cargo hatches, the wing root fairings, everything was metal.

      • EddieB says:

        Probably too much composite materials for the skin to have polished metal like the old dasy.

  25. I blame it all on Calder and Braniff. In my business career the mantra was always change, change change and often for the worse, “if its not broke, break it” an appropriate title to a book for the times.

    We had a recognized world class global hotel program at major corporation and when a new boss came in, wanted me to take it all apart and put it back together differently. When I asked what was wrong with the program, he said “you’re the expert, you figure it out” – He just wanted change so he could say he did something – not directly related to airline livery, but I think it’s the same kind of thinking

  26. Allan Tan says:

    Maggie Thatcher’s reaction to BA rebranding some years ago 😉
    Wikipedia: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed her displeasure at the designs by covering one of the new tailfins on a model 747 with a handkerchief. She declared, “We fly the British flag, not these awful things.” See it here:

    • Patrick says:

      She was commenting on the “World Images” tail series, back in the late 1990s. The livery essay in my book mentions that quote, I think (chapter 7).

  27. Miles says:

    Few things:

    KLM may be part of an alliance with Air France, but it is Dutch. You obviously know this off course, since you spend much time in Amsterdam, so I was just curious as to why the title is in French. Maybe “En jij?” looked silly.

    Second, from a grammatical standpoint, the title should be “Et toi?” Or “Et vous?”.

    Lastly, I don’t mind the KLM livery, and I find it to be a proper update without going full Iberia and destroying the design. The livery looks especially nice on the cityhopper aircraft.

  28. Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    The Eastern does look awesome. But you did cheat a bit, as the landing gear make any plane look ungainly, and that’s the only one shown in flight.

  29. Tod Davis says:

    I think that the normal Air New Zealand livery is pretty nice however they normally end up being turned into some bizarre custom job

  30. Stacy says:

    All of these liveries could be worse. They could be Norwegian, which has to be the single worst livery around. If classic cheat lines evoke size and movement, Norwegian does the the exact opposite.

    • Patrick says:

      Yup, Norwegian’s is pretty bad. The bulbous red front serves as a sort of anti-motion motif. Plus it makes their planes look like penises.

      • Eirik says:

        I actually think its pretty neat. Looks clean and simple. And its easy to recognize. Not just saying that because Im Norwegian.

        Ive lived in the US for almost 5 years now, but I dont know much about US penises (for straight reasons). Maybe they are different over here if they look like that?

        • Those of us with dirty minds tend to see them everywhere, Eirik. (I am a prime offender. I have a terrible sense of humor.)

          Still, your comment made me laugh!

        • Paula Stevens says:

          As a registered nurse who has worked extensively in hospitals on both sides of the Atlantic I have probably seen more penises than most people. American men tend to be circumcised and European men in general are not. This gives a very different appearance to each penis. The circumcised penis does have a bulbous appearance which is not seen in the uncircumsised one. I’m shaking my head as I write this – can’t believe that I am writing to an airline pilot’s blog to comment on penis shape.

          • Patrick says:

            Well, you did it, Paula.  This is my all-time favorite comment. (I mean, how can it not be?) I’ve always been fond of the way discussions about air travel are able to draw in aspects of culture, history, and so forth.  This, though, takes this crossover concept to a whole new (and wonderfully ridiculous) level.  

          • Paula Stevens says:

            Thank you Patrick for the complement. In this world of ours, which sometimes seems to be becoming darker and more broken every day, we need all the “wonderful ridiculousness” that we can get. One of the reasons that you have so many followers is because your observations are so frequently laugh out loud funny and we appreciate it..

      • Dave T says:

        I was thinking it evoked a certain hygiene product used by the other sex.

  31. Cliff Davis says:

    That Eastern 727 is beautiful.

  32. You do realize the ‘four dots and a cross’ are actually a crown?

    KInd regards,
    Elmer van Hest editor

    • Patrick says:

      Of course I do, Elmer. I was just emphasizing the simplicity of that crown’s design. But I’m going to change the text slightly so that nobody thinks I’m that unobservant.

  33. Paul Vincent says:

    I actually love KLM’s tweaked livery. I find it sexier than the old one. I agree with you on the case of Royal Brunei though. *sigh*