The New American Airlines Livery


Never mind the tail. It’s the logo, stupid!

January 6th, 2014

IN MARCH, 2013, American Airlines unveiled its first major identity change in forty-plus years. The news broke as the carrier prepared to emerge from bankruptcy and prepared for its merger with US Airways.

American had bucked more than three decades of design fads. It’s distinctive silver skin, tricolor stripe and gothic “AA” logo dated back to the days of the its 707 “Astrojets.” Heck, my first ever airplane ride, in 1974, was on an American 727 decked out in the very same paintjob that, until last year, was American’s signature.

It was never anything beautiful, but what distinguished it was the logo — the famous “AA,” its red and blue letters bisected by the proud, cross-winged eagle. This was one of the last true icons of airline branding left in the world. Created by Massimo Vignelli in 1967, it was everything a logo should be: elegantly simple, dignified, and instantly recognizable.


The redesign features a U.S. flag motif tail, a faux-silver fuselage, and an entirely new logo that is so unspeakably ugly that it nearly brings tears to my eyes.

The logo — the trademark, the company emblem, to be reproduced on everything from stationery to boarding passes — is the heart of an airline’s graphic identity, around which everything else revolves. It has been said that the true test of a logo is this: can it be remembered and sketched, freehand and with reasonable accuracy, by a young child? The Pan Am globe, the Lufthansa crane, the Delta tricorn, Air New Zealand’s “Koru” and many others meet this criterion beautifully. As did the AA emblem. Maybe they need a tweaking or two over time, but the template of such logos — the really good ones — remains essentially timeless. American Airlines had one of the really good ones. And if you’ve got something like that, you dispense with it at your peril.

I was at Kennedy Airport recently and had the opportunity to view several American Airlines jets — some in the old paintjob, others in the new one. I’m sorry, but there was nothing old or anachronistic looking about the AA emblem. It did not need to be “refreshed,” or “modernized,” as some have suggested. Particularly if you’re replacing it with something so utterly vapid. What exactly is that new, Greyhound Bus-esque logo? It looks like a linoleum knife poking through a shower curtain. If it’s not the worst corporate trademark the airline business has ever seen, I don’t know what is. I can’t imagine a kid with crayons trying to sketch it. Why would anybody want to? It evokes nothing, it says nothing, it means nothing. It gives American Airlines all the look and feel of a bank or a credit card company. I cannot believe how awful a mark this is, and how anybody signed off on it I’ll never understand.

AA New Logo

Its uglier, even, than the hideous Horus head of the new EgyptAir. It’s uglier, even, than the “rising splotch” that Japan Airlines came up with a few years back to replace its beautiful tsurumaru — the circular, red and white crane/Rising Sun it had used since 1960 (and which, by the way, JAL has wisely resurrected).

I’m hardly the only person put off by the new branding. It was controversial from the start, and among those who hated it most were thousands of American’s own employees. Finally, last month, CEO Doug Parker put things to a vote, allowing the carrier’s employees to choose between the new look, or a quasi-retro design that incorporated both the old and new schemes.

AA livery options

By a margin of about 2,000 votes, of some 60,000 cast, workers chose to stay with the new look.

Parker says he is happy about the result. But if he got what he wanted, that’s probably because the vote was effectively rigged. Parker won by making the airplane’s tail the focus of the vote. This misses the point, because like it or hate it, the piano key tail isn’t really the problem. It’s the logo that’s the problem. Neither of the choices dealt with the linoleum knife. In fact, Parker’s retro design would have kept both logos in use — a ridiculous, half-baked appeasement that would have left the plane looking manic and jumbled. A company can’t have two logos.

The smarter compromise would have been, and should have been, to keep the new tail, but dispense immediately with the linoleum knife and put the “AA” on the fuselage, as shown below courtesy of yours truly and Photoshop. Had this option been put to a vote, I suspect it would have won by a healthy margin:

AA Livery How It Should Be

To be clear, I’m not arguing that American didn’t need a spruce-up. The striping and typeface were overdue for a revision, and livery changes are all but mandatory, it seems, when airlines exit bankruptcy. But I can live with the tail and with the faux-silver body paint. Doing away with the AA symbol, however, was a tragic and unspeakably bad call.

Each time one of American’s newly painted planes taxis past me, I wince.




The Yin and Yang of Airline Identity, part 1.

The Yin and Yang of Airline Identity, part 2.


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40 Responses to “The New American Airlines Livery”
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    It seems like AA did everything right to exit bankruptcy including something what’s not seemingly necessary such as livery change, many calls it “identity change”, and this can be a problem, in a matter of fact, it is a problem. Buying out US Airways, taking over their hubs, and replacing former US Airways flights were all smart moves in which I respect that profoundly. The problem is; as AA did all that, the carrier had set off many of their own customers, especially fans. The “AA” identity has existed for multiple generations. There are many of us customers who has traveled with American for as long as the plane’s body were silver with their red, white, blue stripes across (thanks to former designer Massimo Vignelli in our behalves) and their “AA” logo on their tails. There are many of us who had let it’s identity sit it’s roots in the back of our minds. I’m in my mid-twenties and I’ve grown up traveling with AA. The last thing a carrier should do while escaping bankruptcy is putting off their own customers, and the carrier had done it backed by their new and sophisticated “in-flight” entertainment; new aesthetics, and their sum of flights (including the replacement former US Airways flights). Therefore, these probably are the only reasons that American isn’t back to bankruptcy…Or will it?…we’ll see

  2. That old AA logo was a thing of beauty. At the very least, you knew it was American Airlines. Now, who can tell? Dull, uninteresting, unimaginative, uncreative and just dreary as hell. They really paid some marketing/design firm for this??? Well, the MD80s are going bye-bye too. You don’t know what you got until it’s gone!

  3. Jean says:

    I think it looks clean and simple, yet cool and, uhm, sexy.

  4. Cheapside says:

    Is it a tad bit ironic that the ad below this article happens to be one for the Airplane Shop, an ad that fully displays the new American livery with the knife eagle right out the front?

  5. Ruth Kaplan-Kramer says:

    I am staying in a motel near the airport because a fire in my basement left my home damaged and I can’t live there. The motel is on the Delaware River, which appears to be the flight path for planes arriving and departing Philadelphia area. I kept seeing a large number of planes with the flag design on the tail and figured out that they were American Airline planes. I guessed that PHL is an American hub so I looked it up and found out they were maintaining the old US Airways hub for 5 years, as part of the purchase agreement. I did not notice the logo but will look for it tomorrow in the daylight. I agree that it doesn’t say anything in the photos in this article. From below, the blue field of the flag looks like it has white spots that I guessed to be stars until I looked online.

  6. Jenifer Kelley says:

    That old AA logo was a thing of beauty. At the very least, you knew it was American Airlines. Now, who can tell? Dull, uninteresting, unimaginative, uncreative and just dreary as hell. They really paid some marketing/design firm for this??? Well, the MD80s are going bye-bye too. You don’t know what you got until it’s gone!

  7. Seth says:

    Thanks for this. The old logo with the silver planes was the best in the world. Airbus couldn’t make planes for American in those days because they couldn’t do polished skin like Boeing.

    They never should have changed or “refreshed” the livery. They simply should have waited a few years until it was cutting edge again.

    Personally, I like an airline that looks like it’s been around for a while. Makes me feel like they know what they are doing.

    The new livery is the livery of a fictitious airline in a disaster movie.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think that the tail is great design. Very American. Very much picks up on the flag conceptually. American now has one of the best aircraft liveries in the world. It looked tired and old fashioned before and that is how the airline was generally perceived by the public overall. It now looks fresh and revived. Just need to do something about the 100 year old flight attendants. All flight attendants all airlines should be on term contracts. Not a job anyway for someone to make a long term career out of.

    • Patrick says:

      “…Not a job anyway for someone to make a long term career out of…”

      Well, except for the thousands of flight attendants who’ve made a long-term carrier out of it. If you ask me, the best flight attendants are the older and more experienced ones. At my carrier, it’s the the former Pan Am flight attendants who tend to really stand out, most of whom are in their 60s. A young flight attendant on a short-term contract might attractive to look at, but has less experience and less incentive to provide good service.

    • Seth says:

      I love the “100-year-old flight attendants.” They are there to do a job for which experience counts. In an emergency, especially, I want a seasoned pro to be in charge of ensuring my safety. You want eye candy? Go to a hostess bar!

  9. All-Purpose Guru says:

    I used to like the new American logo until I realized, here, that I was actually *seeing* the old United logo and not an old American logo. No wonder I found it confusing.

    Unfortunately, the 787 cannot be left unpainted– they HAD to go to painting the planes if they want the 787 to match the others– the carbon fiber fuselage of the 787 absorbs too much heat at altitude and would not match the other aluminum-skinned jets.

    I cannot STAND the new tail on American’s livery– I gave it some time, to see if it grew on me– and I find it more and more horrible. The stripes continuing down onto the empennage without regard to its shape makes it look *really* bad when viewed in any way other than profile– and you can guess what drawings were used to approve the design in the first place. They gave up the eagle for this?

    • Planely Obsessed says:

      In the late 80s when AA got their first A300s, rather than paint just the tail (made of carbon fibre) they painted the whole thing white. It doesn’t look quite as good like that, but it still looked better than this abstract American flag business. It’s not really an excuse to ditch an iconic, quite handsome, 40 year-old livery just because your plane’s made of plastic.

      • Seth says:

        I think they also started painting some of them gray.

        But I’ll bet there was a way to paint the tail while leaving the rest of the plane polished aluminum. Just needed a competent graphic designer to solve the problem.

  10. Peter Kay says:

    I like your suggestion for the new livery in the bottom photo, and I think that AA should take that word of advice, or better yet, keep the classic logo, but have the blue “A” and the first A in American be the same. If you want to complain to me about how the second a means airline, go ahead. It’s somewhat better than that eagle head garbage.

  11. Andrew Winters says:

    The new AA livery is utterly hideous. There is nothing quite like a natural metal finish on an airplane. You can see the different color panels made of various types of metal, the special finish they use down the middle of the wing, and the streaks of oil, fuel, hydraulic fluid and exhaust. AA’s planes looked like old warriors and I appreciated seeing the signs of wear and tear. They also saved fuel and weight. Bollocks to this new design.

  12. Dave T says:

    On the old logo, that the eagle was the same color as one of the letter A’s, but not the other, always felt unbalanced and awkward. Why did the designer chose to match the blue one? Why not the red one? Why set the eagle mid way between the two? Why not a third color? And on and on… That always disturbed me.

    Besides, the thing was dated. Look people, it’s not 1958 anymore. In spite of the current equipment, it’s no longer the Jet Age. Mid-century modern looks great in your living room, but you don’t wear it to the beach, you don’t drive it to work, you don’t eat it for dinner, and it doesn’t belong at a company which is trying to move forward in the 21st century. I’ll enjoy seeing that airline graphics at a museum show– as long as I get my chardonnay– but not as I’m climbing aboard to get to my cousin’s birthday party in Amsterdam.

    Times change.

    • Patrick says:

      I would never say the color choice for the eagle “disturbed” me, but it was something I noticed and wondered about as well. Not that I didn’t minded it. A little bit of asymmetry is good sometimes.

      Much as I liked the AA and the eagle, there’s no reason the logo couldn’t have been updated and, to use a dangerous word, modernized, as it had been over the years, without reverting to that godawful linoleum cutter thing.

  13. Ken says:

    The new AA logo is indeed odd. It looks as if the designers took the United Air Lines tail spire from the 1960s, flipped the colors, and instead of “United” in the middle, put the American eagle’s beak in the middle. The flag on tail is definitely a nod to US Airways, whose tails had an abstract American flag on them. I have mixed feelings about the tail. It is indeed bright and colorful, but it is too much and causes lack of focus. In my opinion, nothing could have topped the 1968 Helvetica design with the strong AA on the tail. It was iconic and timeless, and it didn’t need fixing.


  15. Louis Betti says:

    There’s an old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Okay, a major merger, and they want to make a change, but this new livery SUCKS! Excuse my language. Now, the second or third livery, which combined elements of old and new is much better. They needed to keep the classic “AA”.

    Oh well, what the heck do I know! Look at what United and Continental did. They took a Continental livery and put UNITED on it. Damn, they didn’t even italicize it!

  16. John LM says:

    The redesign you did was spot on and if they had any humility they’d pay you a fee and paint over the awful USPS inspired branding. I wonder if they’d have to replace the entire paint job to do so. I imagine the choices for the vote were based on the tail because that can be taped off and painted over without redoing the whole plane. Two logos … that is the kind of idea tha could only have come from upper management.

    As I wrote before I definitely think AA was in need of a revamp. The shiny new planes look imperial when they come off the line, but after a couple years in the middle atmosphere they start to look like they made multiple low approaches over a driving range then washed with sandpaper.

    The previous branding is classic mid century design that will always look clean and dignified on paper, but things like signs and interior trimming look especially old and dated when left to go into visual disrepair. Nothing looks good when it’s scratched and chipped, but compared to the gleaming white lacquer tables, translucent purple facades and newish A230s of Virgin America it takes on a more dated feel with the legacy carriers . Lining up at a gate with worn out signage overlooking an older MD-80 (great plane) makes your think of all the spilled soda and greasy fingerprints that accrued over the years.

    Heres hoping the new branding and planes will return AA to it’s former glory. Although I’m just assuming there was a glory at some point. I’m not quite old enough to remember the “Golden Age”. This is the same company that had the 747 only briefly although the SP looked incredible in the classic livery.

  17. John Delphia says:

    The new tail looks too presumptuous with the non-flag-flag. I originally thought – looking at the new angled eaglebeak/wing logo – that the tail would be the new logo instead, just angled to fit the tail. Then have the body with the same old Helvetica sans serif, spelled out American Airlines (maybe with the old eagle from the old log placed in front). There are too many non-flag-flag analogs out there, its been over a decade after the 9/11 need to be brash about it. Pan Am “showed the flag” excellently without any need to be garish about it. The fake silver would be nice if made to look like some opalescent car paint silverish treatments, real elegant.

  18. Ray K says:

    To this day, I don’t find the new logo nearly as offensive as that pointless, piano keyboard tail.

  19. steve sundquist says:

    I preferred the old AA logo and agree the new logo just looks goofy. I also liked the unpainted aluminum finish. With all of the emphasis placed on efficiency how much fuel do they burn hauling the weight of that paint?

  20. SJ Bobkins says:

    I just fell into the website, you have made my day Patrick. I have kerosine pumping through my veins from the day I watched a Bonanza F-27 take off at our small muni airport. In the old days,I spent 100’s of hours standing on observation decks at DEN, SLC, and PHX among others memorized by everything to do with flight. I received my private pilots license while in college training in a STOL Mahl (spelling might be off) the hardest damn tail dragger, to fly ever. I’ve rented or used a father in law’s set of toys to fly lots of Piper’s and Cessna’s which were so easy, I never touched the hated Mahl again. I’ve always loved the AA logo with the double winged eagle, at the very least they should have kept the eagle. Greyhound should sue for trademark infringment, speaking of which the bus company has been the roadmap for Mr Doug Parker’ aviation dreams. I was married to an FA for 25 years who’s checks were signed by Mr Parker. I have no problem accepting the fact he may have “fixed” the vote. Along with all the former America West and new US Airways managers, I wouldn’t trade them for a bucket of warm spit. AA employees, the fun is just starting.

  21. Vic says:

    That’s horrendous. Sorry but there is NOTHING like an American Airlines in the traditional silver with AA logo. Sadly this seems to be all part of the “blanding” of modern society, and the elimination of individuality. Have we decided that no original idea can EVER be good anymore unless it is sifted, blended, contorted, and bent completely out of shape by focus groups, project managers, product managers, etc etc? Not sure if that was the process here but seems like something that ended up as a compromise, whose main attribute was to not offend anyone involved in the project.

  22. Chaz says:

    A) The ter’rists won.
    B) Bad taste won.
    C) Doesn’t matter as I usually do everything in my power to avoid flying American flag carriers, except Hawaiian Airlines (yes, I don’t live in the lower 48 but even for trips to Europe I’ll go via Asia and mix Asia into the trip).

  23. Marcio V. Pinheiro says:

    I used to love AA`s unpainted shyning bodies. It looked intelligent to me, easier to examine and lighter to fly. I would not change anything.
    American already had a very good looking smart planes.

  24. Steve T. says:

    There’s no accounting for taste. I like the new logo and design, and always thought that the old “AA” logo was staid and uninspiring. Different strokes….

  25. Lester says:

    They let employees decide? They should have polled design experts, graphic artists and advertising people, not employees. Do car companies poll their employees to see if employees like their new designs? (NO!)

  26. Rod Miller says:

    Yes, find a good one and stick with it. American, Iberia, Delta, TAP, SAS, Air Canada, etc. all had great liveries. Look at them now. And why? Swissair used to have a stupendously symbolic and beautiful livery, with that “chocolate stripe” cheatline, then went under in disgrace. What emerged from the ashes is clunky and embarrassing.

  27. Mitch J says:

    I am so mad that they took their iconic “AA” and threw it in the trash bin like it didn’t mean anything. I don’t give a crap about the silver color, the flag tail, whatever. But to DIS that logo really grinds my gears. Consequently they have got a lot of work to do to impress me with customer service. A new paint scheme does nothing to impress me that you are a new airline. You must impress with your level of service. Period.

  28. reese says:

    Personally, I LIKE the New Livery…..didn’t initially but It has grown on Me. The New AA is much better than DL,UA or that horrendous SWA garbage. I am Not overly fond of the dubbed ‘Flight Symbol’ and will miss the Bold “AA”, people need to Take Notice (which they will) “The New American Is Arriving”….the aircraft do look impressive.

    • Eirik says:

      Agree. Only difference, I liked it from the first time I saw it.
      I think it looks clean and simple, yet cool and, uhm, sexy.

  29. Brent says:

    I hate the matte gray, watercolor/unfinished tail and logo. That said – I do not understand how they got away with doing such a major change in bankruptcy, when they knew with near certainty that there was going to be a merger [or at least a management change].

    Seemed they rushed off to try and get as many planes done before new management came in so it would appear to be to late to change.

    I’m still trying to understand the millions the branding agency spent on the design, not to mention all the focus groups – to end up with this result.

    • Andrew says:

      The had to go with the gray coloring the soon to be delivered 787 can not be left bare aluminum like the old livery since it is carbon fiber. Leaving the bare aluminum was originally an effort to save weight and thus fuel with the aircraft.

  30. aflapr says:

    I think they should have gone the other way and gone back to the old Astrojet livery. I think going “classic” would have helped distinguish the airline – particularly post merger.

    • David says:

      I agree with you. Updating the old retro logo would have helped emphasize the airline’s history and tradition.

      The new logo is not only hideous, but, as Patrick writes, is so utterly generic and meaningless, it could be anything.

  31. As a pilot for American and an owner of my own businesses, I agree that the logo is disgusting and hardly worthy of that of a global airline.

    Another thing that is somewhat offending is that the tail, which is supposed to be representative of the US flag, has orange stripes in it. The blue and white have varying shades of blue and white/grey, which I find OK, but the orange is not a varying shade of orange, which should be a lighter (or darker) shade of red instead.

    I also agree that the voting was rigged as it gave no choice to choose a different logo, or even paint scheme, showing a remarkably low effort to offer something that will represent a truly global airline, worthy of the American “brand”.

    That being said, it is a valid representation of what Mr. Horton and his predecessor(s) did to the airline.

  32. […] half-baked appeasement that was destined from the start to fail. More in my essay here… Enjoy. […]