Part One: Logos & Liveries

THERE WAS A TIME, not terribly long ago, when the logo of Pan American World Airways was one of the most recognized commercial trademarks in the world. There was nothing remarkable about the symbol — a fissured, blue and white globe reminiscent of a basketball — but it worked. The globe appeared in the 1950s and endured for almost half a century, right to Pam Am’s final breath in 1991. Aspects of the airline’s identity would change over the years, but through it all, the blue ball persevered. Had Pan Am survived, I suspect that globe would still be around.

Since the dawn of civil aviation, airlines have been devising and revising what they believe to be meaningful identities. As explored by author Keith Lovegrove in his superb volume Airline: Identity, Design, and Culture, the logo represents only a slice of this overall branding process, which takes place on a score of fronts, from cabin interiors to crew attire to the color of maintenance vehicles. But it’s the logo — the trademark, the company emblem, to be reproduced on everything from stationery to boarding passes — that encapsulates identity in a single, vital aesthetic mark.  Everything else revolves around this.

Many of the most renowned airline insignia incorporate national symbols or cultural associations: the shamrock of Aer Lingus, the Qantas kangaroo, the green cedar of MEA (Lebanon), the Air Canada maple leaf and Aeromexico’s Aztec-inspired “Eagle Knight.” Subtler adaptations include Malaysia Airlines’ indigenous kite design, or the calligraphic brush stroke of Hong Kong’s airline, Cathay Pacific.  But while symbolism is optional, simplicity, on the other hand, is a must. 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.  Pan Am’s basketball fit this criteria beautifully, as does Lufthansa’s crane, the Air New Zealand koru and many others.  They’re dignified, unpretentious and unencumbered — and for exactly those reasons able to cultivate recognition the world over. Maybe they need a tweaking or two over time, but the template of such trademarks — the really good ones — remains essentially timeless.

And if you’ve got something like that, you dispense with it at your peril. Among the most deplorable branding moves ever made was American Airlines’ decision in 2013 to abandon its venerable “AA” logo. With its proud, cross-winged eagle, this was one of the most distinctive and enduring icons in all of aviation. Created by Massimo Vignelli in 1967, it always looked modern. Its successor is almost too ugly to be described – a vertical bar of red and blue, bisected by what’s supposed to be an eagle’s beak. Symbolically lifeless and hideous to boot, it looks like a linoleum knife cutting through a shower curtain.  (For more on this travesty, see here.)

Not that you can’t retain the outlines of a classic logo and still manage to ruin it, as demonstrated in recent years by several airlines that couldn’t leave well enough alone:

Take the case of cargo giant UPS. The original United Parcel Service emblem featured a bow-tied box and heraldic-style badge—the work of Paul Rand, a legendary design guru who also did logos for Westinghouse and IBM. It was a wonderful heart-and-soul manifestation of the company’s core mission: delivering packages. Its replacement is a singularly bland, almost militaristic “modernization.” The box and string have been deposed, swapped for a meaningless gold slash mark. If we didn’t know better, UPS could be a bank or insurance company. It’s the worst thing we’ve seen in the shipping business since the U.S. Postal Service came up with that monsterized eagle head.

No less disappointing was the elimination of the tsurumaru, the red and white crane motif worn by Japan Airlines. Since 1960, every JAL aircraft featured what was possibly the most elegant airline logo ever conceived: a stylized depiction of the crane, lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of the Japanese rising sun. Beginning in 2002, this ageless symbol succumbed to what had to be the most regrettable makeover in industry history, replaced by an oversized, blood-red blob—a rising splotch—oozing across the tailfin. It was a terrible decision on aesthetic merits alone, and still worse considering the crane’s cultural importance in Japan.

Apparently enough people complained, however, and the tsurumaru has been resurrected. Bringing it back was an unusual move, marking one of the very few times an airline has reverted to a prior logo, but JAL couldn’t have made a wiser decision (American, are you listening?).

A similar tragedy struck at Northwest Airlines several years ago. You might remember the carrier’s circular “NW” symbol, worn in white atop the bright red tail. Unveiled in 1989, this was a work of genius. It was an N; it was a W; it was a compass pointing toward the northwest. It was all of those, and perhaps the most memorable trademark ever created by Landor Associates, one of the industry’s most powerful identity creators. By 2003, it was in the waste can, bastardized into a lazy circle and small triangular arrow. Past tense, and good for that: Northwest and its ruined colophon no longer exist, having been folded into Delta Air Lines.

Delta, for its part, is owed kudos for hanging onto its famous “widget” tricorn, albeit in revised colors.  The widget says one thing and says it without a hint of fuss or pretension: Delta.  Aeroflot gets a mention here too.  Overall, the Russian carrier’s newest paintjob is garishly overdone, but scores big points for retaining its Soviet-era winged hammer and sickle, virtually unchanged since the 1940s. 

And what of those logos that ought to be changed but haven’t been? For starters, I give you the “Sir Turtle” mascot of Cayman Airways, who looks like he just crawled out of a Bosch painting. I’m tempted, against sentimental judgment, to add Iran Air’s strange logo to this category as well. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to hit up Google for some pictures. Inspired by the character of Homa, carved on the columns at the ancient Persian site of Persepolis, it’s a creepy, fetal-looking griffin—part bird, part horse, and part cow. It was designed in 1961 by a twenty-two-year-old Iranian art student named Edward Zohrabian and has been used ever since.
Needless to say, the corporate trademark is only one part of an airline’s visual presentation.  An airplane is a very large canvas on which to make or break your statement. Enter the paint bucket.

Decades ago, Braniff International was famous for dousing whole planes in solid colors — blues, greens, even powder pastels.  In the same way, today’s de rigueur relies on perception of the airplane as a whole, rather than a separate body and tail.  Traditional paintjobs approached these surfaces separately, while contemporary ones strive to marry body and tail in a continuous canvas.  This has brought the once familiar “cheat line” — that thin band of paint stretching across the windows from nose to tail — to the brink of extinction.  There was a time when virtually every hull was decorated by horizontal striping, a custom now gone the way of those drive-up stairs and fancy inflight meals.

With a stripe-less fuselage, the tail becomes the focal point. Some airlines, such as Qantas, rely on powerful fin markings that carry the entire aircraft.  Others, such as Emirates, balance tail and fuselage through the use of oversized, billboard-style lettering.  Still others go for a flying warehouse extreme — an empty white expanse with few details aside from a capriciously placed title.

But the dominant theme in liveries these days is one of motion. There are enough streaks, swishes, arcs, twists, swirls, and curls out there to make anybody dizzy. And most of them, sadly, are indistinguishable from one another—overwrought, gimmicky, and self-conscious. “The lowest common denominator of brand identity is something I call the ‘generic meaningless swoosh thing,’” says Amanda Collier, a graphic design veteran. According to Collier, “The GMST is what happens when any corporation tries to develop a new look. The managers will talk about wanting something that shows their company is ‘forward thinking’ and ‘in motion,’ and no fewer than three of them will reference Nike, inventors of the original Swoosh. The creative types smile, nod, secretly stab themselves with their X-Acto knives.”

As a result, there are fewer lasting impressions. Airplanes blur together in a palette of motion-themed anonymity. Somewhere there’s a vending machine. Airline executives drop in a million dollars worth of consulting coins, and out pops another curvy-swervy variant of the GMST.  With few exceptions (Aeromexico is one), these designs are so dismally uninspired that it’s hard to look at them without yawning. They are meant to be sophisticated and suggestive of movement and energy, but all they really do is make your airline indistinguishable from everybody else’s. Watching from a terminal window, people are asking the one question they should never have to ask: What airline is that?

Keeping all this in mind, let’s critique the latest liveries of North America’s ten largest airlines:


1. United Airlines

When United and Continental Airlines announced their merger in 2010, this combination paint scheme was unveiled marrying the Continental tail and fuselage with the United typeface. “Continented,” let’s call it. It’s a good-looking design, and we understand the sentiment, but doing away with United’s friendly and familiar “U” emblem was a mistake. The U — a feathery, truncated tulip in its final, pre-merger form — was never especially dashing, but Continental’s segmented globe, now in its place, is so boring that it looks like a PowerPoint slide. Also I miss the fully spelled “United Airlines,” used in the 1990s, which had more gravity than a lackadaisical “United.” And hold your breath: rumors say the carrier might be moving to a GMST-style side stripe in the near future.

Crisp, light, ultra-corporate. Overall grade: B-plus

2. Delta Air Lines

“Delta puts on a tux,” is how one person describes it. It’s a sophisticated, upmarket look. The typeface is very handsome, as is the newly textured widget up on the tail, now in a two-tone red (an apparent nod to Northwest, which became part of Delta in 2010). The drawback is the anemic fuselage and its scrawny blue understripe. A bolder bottom, maybe with some red accenting, would put it over the top.

Tight, confident, stylish. Overall grade: B

3. American Airlines

One of the few vintage holdouts, American hadn’t changed its colors in forty years, hanging tough with its polished silver body, gothic tail bird and tricolor cheat. It was never anything beautiful, but give them credit for bucking four decades of design fads. Alas. I can live with the piano key tail and the gray typeface, but, as already discussed, the crime in American’s new look, launched in 2013, was forsaking the ageless “AA” logo. Killing off that trademark is unforgiveable.

Tragic, ruinous, patriotic.  Overall grade: D (Here’s a shot of the old scheme. For the new one see here.)

4. Southwest Airlines

In the early days Southwest used lengthwise fillets of red and orange, topped with a peculiar khaki that the airline called “desert gold.” It was homely as hell, but it was unassuming and geographically correct. Having expanded far afield, the airline’s look, if not its name, was thought too parochial, and so it has been, um, refreshed. Refreshed to the point that a Southwest jet looks like an amusement park ride, or an overly rich dessert concocted by a starving child. Even the cowls and wheel hubs have been splashed with frivolous confection. The front of the plane is doused in a cotton-candy blue, giving way behind the wings to a too-big, too-bright swoop of yellow, red, and blue that rides luridly up the tail. I admit to being fond of Southwest’s heart emblem, but they’ve foolishly hidden it on the lower fuselage, where nobody except a baggage loader or someone in a beach chair might see it. There’s no excuse for it not being on the tail. Who signed off on this? Next time, hide the peyote.

Exuberant, profuse, may rot your teeth.  Overall grade: F

5. Air Canada

In 2017 our friends to the north did a very smart thing, finally moving on from that strangely pixelated maple leaf and soapy blue fuselage — a hue that, at least to me, made every Air Canada jet evoke the tiling in an airport men’s room. On the tail, the maple roundel is back to its old proud self, set strikingly in red against a glossy field of black. I’d have fattened the black underside a touch, but still it gives the jet some nice horizontal definition. Up front, the raccoon-face windscreen is both a roguish flourish and a throwback to the liveries of old, when cockpit windows were often masked to reduce sun glare. Airline liveries almost never employ the color black, but this might start to change once designers get a gander at this one. Here’s a brash, in-your-face refutation of all the hackneyed, overdone designs out there. Hopefully it’ll inspire others.

Cool, confident, Canadian: Overall grade: A

6. jetBlue

JetBlue uses a grab-bag series of tail markings, with different geometric patterns painted in alternating shades of, guess what, blue.  Squares, diamonds, polka dots, and plaids. There’s one that looks like a circuit board. It sounds fun, but they’re rather uninspired. The rest of the plane is an exercise in nothingness — a bare white top, navy bottom, and the jetBlue name in a coy, too-small font.

Blue, bland, blah.  Overall grade: C-minus

7. Alaska Airlines

Alaska modified its colors slightly in 2016. It’s a partial redesign rather than a complete makeover, and you’ll be seeing both versions as planes are gradually repainted. Ignoring that Alaska Airlines is actually headquartered in Seattle, we love the parka-wearing Inuit, whose smiling face continues to grace every tail. It’s a down-home — wherever home is exactly — and effective touch. Revisionist smart-alecks will claim it’s the face of Old Man Winter, Johnny Cash, or an age-enhanced Che Guevara, but the airline’s communications department assures us he’s indigenous. His visage is believed to be that of a real person, though even the company isn’t sure which one. They narrow him down to one of two native Alaskans: a reindeer herder named Chester Seveck or a man named Oliver Amouak, who appeared in an airline-sponsored “traveling stage show” in the 1950s. Whoever he is, he should always be up there, in monochrome and smiling warmly. For reasons unknown, however, it was decided to surround the tail man’s head with a fluorescent halo. This weird, blue-and-lime garnish then continues at the base of the fin before ribboning its way down the fuselage. What the point of this mess is, or what it’s supposed to evoke, with the possible exceptions of the aurora borealis or a migraine headache, I have no idea. They’ve stuck it on the winglets as well. The GMST strikes again. It’s out of synch with the rest of the livery, and with the dignity of the Alaska brand in general. More welcome are the changes to the company typeface, which runs billboard-style just ahead of the wing. The old one is almost illegibly harsh and jagged; if you ever try composing the word “Alaska” on an Etch-a-Sketch while in the throes of electrocution, this is what you’ll come up with. This ghastly font is now pleasantly buffed and rounded. It remains distinctive and charismatic, but it’s immeasurably easier on the eyes.

Folksy, ethnic, radioactive. Overall grade: C-minus

8. Spirit Airlines

Look out, it’s a giant bumble bee from another dimension! It’s a school bus taken to the air! Nope, calm down, it’s just Spirit Airlines, at it again. Poor Spirit has had a tough time of things. If I’m counting right they’ve gone through four different looks in the past ten years, all of them terrible. There was the jaggedy black-on-silver ashtray motif, and then the one with the whirlpool logo that made every plane look like a box of laundry detergent. There’s not much to say about the latest one, except that it’s yellow — very, very yellow. And I guess it’s only fitting that the country’s most downmarket carrier wear the most downmarket livery. There’s certainly no confusing it, give them that.

Unmistakable, unhinged, requires sunglasses. Overall grade: F

9. Frontier Airlines

Today’s Frontier Airlines is no relation to the original Frontier, which ceased operations in 1986, but they’ve gone and resurrected the stylized “F” that was part of the first carrier’s Saul Bass-designed look of the 1970s. It’s a good move. The green, meanwhile, is a handsome respite from all the reds and blues out there, and I dig the old-fashioned fuselage arrow as well. The animals-on-the-tail thing, though, is getting tired. Put the “F” up there, the way Saul had it.

Inspired, refreshing, traditional. Overall grade: B-minus

10. Hawaiian Airlines

It’s charming that states 49 and 50 both have gone with faces on the tail.  One a man, the other a woman, they gaze longingly at each other from across the vast Pacific.  Both have character, but Hawaiian’s island maiden is more colorful, and prettier, than Alaska’s wintry Inuit.  The blobbish lavender petals creeping up the rear fuselage are a little odd, but on the whole there’s a nice balance between front and back.  The typeface is perfect.

Warm, sunny, a little sexy.  Overall grade: A-minus

What can I say, I’m a tough grader. I wonder what Sister Wendy or the late Robert Hughes would think.

I’d also like to throw in that I’ve had it up to here with carriers that feel compelled to turn their winglets into miniature billboards, festooning their little upturned tips with stripes, logos, or text. The surface isn’t big enough, and the result is too often cluttered, tacky, and redundant. You’ve already got the fuselage and tail to work with; we don’t also need to see your name or trademark painted across the winglet.

With exceptions. Virgin Atlantic’s Union Jack winglets are dashing, and Hawaiian has an unobtrusive floral pattern that makes for a pleasant accent. Turkish Airlines’ puts a logo there, but it’s understated and attractive, as is the oryx head used by Qatar Airways. Generally, though, the idea is to keep a winglet as modest as possible.

There’s a special place in airline hell, meanwhile, for carriers that insist on using this space to advertise their web addresses. I’m not sure it’s necessary to have this anywhere on a plane — as if there’s a person alive who doesn’t know that airlines have online sites, and that you can go there and purchase tickets — but it’s especially gratuitous when it’s crammed onto a winglet.

Thinking back to airlines that no longer exist, one of the things I miss is the old PSA smile.  California-based Pacific Southwest Airlines used to apply smile decals to the noses of its jets.  It wasn’t anything showy, just a thin black curve. It was a da Vincian, ambivalent kind of smile that didn’t get under your skin — as if each plane were expressing contentment simply at being a plane.

One of these days I’ll put together a report card for Europe and Asia. People might assume we Americans are outstyled by our foreign competitors, but that’s not necessarily true. Just to choose one, take a look some time at the newest EgyptAir paintjob, a perfect example of everything that is wrong with airline branding so far in the 21st century. Almost unspeakably awful, it looks like the uniform for an amateur hockey team.  Similarly, check out Air-India’s latest.  They downsized the little Taj-Mahal window outlines to the point where you can hardly see them, and threw a gaudy, sunburst-style spinning wheel up on the tail.

British Airways earned a spot in marketing infamy when, in 1997 and to considerable fanfare, it unveiled its “world images” look.  A dozen or so unique patterns, each representing a different region the world, were chosen for the tails of BA aircraft.  Out went the quartered Union Jack and heraldic crest, and in came Delftblue Daybreak, Wunala Dreaming, and Youm al-Suq.  It was all very progressive, multicultural, and revolting.  Newell and Sorell, creators of the campaign, called it “a series of uplifting celebrations.”  Others called it “a wallpaper catalog.” Prime Minister Thatcher once draped a handkerchief over the tail of a 747 model and said, “We fly the British flag, not these awful things.”

World images was abandoned in 2001, replaced by the fleetwide red, white, and blue still in use today, and that makes every BA aircraft look like a huge can of Pepsi.

And yes, I have seen Southwest’s killer whale 737, Shamu, All Nippon’s Pokemon jets, and all the similar novelties and promotional paintjobs. Jetliner hulls are painted up to commemorate or sponsor everything from wildlife preservation sports teams to television cartoons.

Also trendy nowadays are retro liveries, where an airline paints up one or more planes in a scheme from decades past. It’s a fun idea, at least when applied sparingly. Among the best are American’s “Astrojet” throwback, and Lufthansa’s 1970s colors redone on a brand-new 747-8. Some of them, like Lufthansa’s, make you wonder why they ever changed liveries in the first place. Others, like American’s revival of TWA’s clunky red-and-white look of the 1980s, were better off left in the dustbin.

JetBlue recently decorated an Airbus A320 in an old-time livery featuring an ochre-and-blue cheatline and the titles “New York International.” It’s a nostalgic-looking uniform that screams late ’60s or early ’70s. The only thing is, it’s completely made-up. JetBlue has been in operation only since 2000, and this livery never existed. They do have a gift for self-promotion, that jetBlue.

Continued in Part Two


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