United Blues

April 24, 2019

OVER THE PAST dozen years or so, the trend in airline livery design has been one big race to the bottom. Whenever a carrier announces a change is in the works, we prepare to be disappointed.

And so it went after getting word that United Airlines, the nation’s number two carrier, was about to unveil a new look. A part of me held out hope. Maybe, I thought, they’d bring back a version of the iconic, sorely missed “U” logo that graced the carrier’s tails for so many years. Or maybe we’d see something akin to the handsome mid-90s look, with the gray top and elegant understriping.

This was always a longshot, of course.

The livery being replaced, which came about after the merger with Continental Airlines in 2010, is itself nothing special. It’s an amalgamation that blended the United typeface with the Continental globe. Bland and ultra-corporate, it looks like something you’d see in a PowerPoint slide.

Unfortunately, if predictably, they’ve gone way too far in the other direction. They’ve stayed with the 2010 template; except, now, they’ve sucked away whatever dignity it had.

We start with the “United” title, which has gone big. Big for big’s sake, unbalanced and oddly spaced, as if it were painted over some other name. The gold accenting is gone from the tail now, and the blue has been amped up, turning the Continental globe into a sort of fluorescent spider web. Is this the airline’s excuse for a logo? Do they even have a logo? It’s a tail that manages to be gaudy and boring at the same time.

And, needless to say, you can’t have a livery these days without some annoying “in-motion” theme. United obliges with a mandatory curvy thing along the lower fuselage. Is it a worm? A garden hose? Worst of all it’s black.

Granted this isn’t as terrible as what American Airlines did a few years ago. It’s bold, I’ll give you that, and you can marvel in the simplicity of it. Or, you can call it what it is: a watered-down, half-assed scheme that evokes the downmarket cast of a budget airline — hardly the look that a preeminent global carrier should hope to project.

Grade: D

With both AA and UA having let us down, together with JetBlue’s lackluster scheme and Southwest’s carnival car abomination, this leaves Delta, for now, head and shoulders above the other U.S. majors.


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62 Responses to “United Blues”
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  1. Jake Taylor says:

    I have flown on the 737-800(southwest), I find it to be very comfortable. What do pilots think of this aircraft?


  2. Aeronautic1 says:

    Robert F. Six, founder of Continental is spinning in his grave faster than an N1 turbine.

  3. Captain Oveur says:

    The former gold Continental globe looks classier. This new livery is uninspired.

  4. Marshall says:

    The Continental globe/AT&T Airlines livery was dull crap from the outset. This modified, “evolved” globe livery is worse than just boring. It looks like a mistake, like the paint shop forgot to add the gold to the globe and the cheatline. If this thing is sitting on the ramp next to the old livery, I’m sure some older passengers will think, “Oh, that one’s still waiting for the fancy gold trim.”

    Also, on an A320 this livery will look a lot like JetBlue from a distance. Maybe that’s the idea. Blue branding and color cues on airplanes is like “Put a bird on it!” from Portlandia. United probably focus-grouped it and concluded people love blue-ness. But hey, at least the livery finally looks less like the branding of an early-90s corporate office park management company.

  5. Anonymous 314 says:

    I was wondering what you thought of Norwegian Air’s use of heroes on its tails. https://www.norwegian.com/us/about/our-story/tail-fin-heroes/

    I hadn’t been aware of it until I saw one in Seattle today and was surprised that a Norwegian airline had Miro on its tail. I like the variety.

    • Patrick says:

      I have no problem with Norwegian’s tails. They’re distinctive and interesting.

      What bugs me is how the forward fuselage is painted red in a way that makes every plane look like a giant aluminum penis.

      • Jörgen says:

        Hahahaha 😀 Thank you Patrick – I’ve thought that since I laid eyes on it the first time, but I haven’t heard anyone else voice that opinion 🙂

  6. Ben says:

    The all shades of blue globe on the tail looks like the ocean drowned all of it.

  7. MC says:

    Appreciation or rejection of a corporate logo/brand, is of course subjective.

    But classical logos of legacy airlines introduced back in the 70’s should just stick to them, they are so successful and make you dwell about that bygone era that carriers now bring them back from time to time, to reminisce and hear people say “Ahhhhh now that’s cool, retro, classic, reassuring …”.
    When I see modification like this UA 737 (with the Continental logo on the tail), one has to beg the question why would anyone go through all the trouble and cost of repainting the entire fleet, if it has no relevant significance, and lacks impact, it is nothing but an empty change.

    The airline I worked for changed the “image” 4 times in 3 decades, and like this one the changes were irrelevant, I presume the true reason behind it all was because of the millions paid out to the marketing and branding company who came up with the riveting suggestion and “sold them” the idea of how overall revenue will go through the roofs when passengers see that the pantone colour moved 1 digit up and the angle of the letter slanted to the right decreased by 2.4 degrees. The only plausible reason to go along with these “revamping’s” is if the company was in some way connected to the person in the airline that took the decision to re-brand.

  8. Joe Flyer says:

    Your assessment is blatantly anchored to a thrice bankrupt UAL that broke guitars and fought with unions. The UA battleship livery was an uninspired clip art project devised by bean counters who thought that they would save money by not painting the plane. The tulip is forever classic and the stylized globe is OK, but the battleship should ave been sunk before it ever sailed. The evolution, while far from risky is a modernization of a theme. Honestly, they should spend their money on fixing the WiFi

  9. Tom says:

    I just noticed some lettering to the left of the L1 door and below the Star Alliance logo…by any chance are they naming their planes, a la Pan Am’s “Clipper whatever” theme? I can’t read it because it gets blurry when I zoom in.

  10. Brian says:


    There was a “leak” of the new livery about a month before it officially announced. The leaked livery didn’t look anything like what the real livery came to be – in fact I thought it looked better.

    I miss the original tulip version, of course, but I also liked the gray and blue version they had in the 90s. That looked very business like and professional.

    Calling this boring in right on the money. I’m sure United spent a whole bag full on money on this…they got taken.

  11. Eric Welch says:

    I really don’t care how planes are painted, although I do enjoy the multicolored ones (not that I ever see any in person). My favorites would have to be Icelandair Boeing 757 Hekla Aurora Livery and Brussels Airlines celebration of their cultural heritage paintings.

  12. Bruce says:

    Patrick, I’d be intrigued to hear your view on Norwegian’s design: I saw loads of their planes when I went through Gatwick recently, having never really seen them before.

    I vaguely remember years ago – back in your Salon days – you were complaining about when BA brought in loads of different tail designs, which made it difficult for pilots of other airlines to recognise which airline it was.

    With Norwegian, every tail is different. But they’re all in the same style: black-and-white pictures of people’s faces on a pale blue background. And they’re all the same colour. Does this work in terms of identification for other pilots? And do you think it’s a good idea? I kind of liked it. But some of the choices were odd: most seem to be Scandinavian, but Freddie Mercury, much as I like him, was very much not.

    Also, the white fuselage and red nose, while at least refreshingly different, does look kind of … ummm …. phallic, especially on the Dreamliner with its rounded nose.

    • Patrick says:

      My complaint about the BA tails wasn’t that pilots didn’t recognize them. My complaint was they were ugly. (Once we’re off U.S. soil, the average pilot doesn’t recognize eighty percent of the airlines out there.)

      I don’t mind Norwegian’s tails. It’s something different, and they’re distinctive. I like the black-and-white. My problem is the nose. The planes look like penises.

      Lauda Air (Austria) once had a plane named after Freddie Mercury. He’s strangely popular in airline circles, it seems.

      • Bruce says:

        Ah, OK. For the BA tails, that would make sense: they were hideous. It must be 10-15 years since that happened, so my memory is a bit foggy.

        As for Freddie Mercury, it’s odd. He’s on the record as liking to ride his bicycle, but hasn’t expressed any opinion on planes.

        “My problem is the nose. The planes look like penises.”

        I am glad it’s not just my sick imagination, then.

  13. Bruce says:

    I really liked the old United design with the white writing on the grey background. I think I particularly liked it because I was used to seeing British Airways planes: in dull (British) light, the two liveries looked similar from a distance, and then the reversed-out “United” in white really came as a surprise.

    At a similar time with an American carrier, I liked when Northwest switched to its “NWA” logo. Not because it was good, obviously: it was a real pioneer in the “Big Plain Writing And Meaningless Tail Logo” school of design. But I liked it because it was the only airline with the name of a good 90s rap band written down the side. Apart from Public Enemy Airlines, of course.

  14. Paul Schnebelen says:

    It’s very… blue. And the only way they could have made it any more bland is to replace the word “UNITED” with “AIRLINE”. Which they might do after their next merger – you never know…

  15. Alan Dahl says:

    United needs to go back in time and use their red, white and blue 1960’s era pre-tulip livery as their inspiration for their current livery. It doesn’t need to be 100% identical but there’s a lot to like there and it would be bold to bring back their blue stripe along the windows which almost every carrier has abandoned these days. I’d thicken up the blue and red stripes on the tail and maybe add an Air Canada style black mask around the cockpit but that’s about all I would change.

  16. Jonathan says:

    Every time they change it they make it worse.

  17. Globetrotter says:

    “And so it went after getting word that United Airlines, the nation’s number two carrier…”

    Number 2 for what? What rankings are you referring to?

  18. CarlosSi says:

    I don’t think it’s that bad. I noticed you downgraded it from C to D, ahahahah.

    -Use of blue. I would have liked to see purple on the winglets, or a purple globe maybe.
    -Balanced colors, not tail heavy, kept the colored underside.
    -I do like the tail gradient and that they didn’t make the blue stretch down to the fuselage.

    -Curvy cheatline is awkward to me. I like when the cheatline is straight at the nose and descends at the tail (like Midwest or Malaysia had it).
    -Grey underside is odd. I just wanted more purple! Airlines have ditched nice color combos for a single color to go with white (Austrian’s blue and Lufthansa’s yellow being ditched).

    -Titles I don’t have too much of a problem with. If they kept them the same, I think there would be too much space between the titles and the underside since the cheatline/curve element doesn’t run across the middle anymore.

  19. Ted says:

    Having seen white 707/27/37 over the past fifty years, the all white front end brings out the worst in this design and makes it look clunky.

  20. Ted says:

    I’d fix it with a light blue meatball on the tail. Then a straight stripe with a curve on under the nose like the 60’s UA gold line. Then paint the engines gray and some detail. Get the lettering out of the windows. Fix the font. The tulip font and a nice flat bottomed U, and the radiused corners on the E was nice. Have to do a stylized N, like a small horizontal segment between the first vertical and the diagonal.
    I liked the tulip font because it had wider proportions.

  21. James David Walley says:

    “Billboard” display of an airline’s name, as done here, always struck me as low-rent and tacky, maybe because so many ULCCs use it. I even felt that PanAm going to that format was the beginning of the end for them. On the other hand, at least United held back from putting their web address on the fuselage or nacelles…

    • Bryce says:

      Agree about billboard fuselage titles being boring, except Pan Am. Their typeface was so uniquely beautiful and never equaled before or since that those five letters qualified as a distinct logo in and of itself. Their typeface could carry the brand without the globe logo.

      • Patrick says:

        I’m with you on this. I’m not a huge fan of billboard titles, but Pan Am’s weren’t at all offensive, owing in a big way to the beauty of their proprietary typeface (it was, as you say, a logo in and of itself). Plus they were one of the first carriers to use the style.

  22. Tom says:

    I too wish they’d bring back the red & blue “tulip “ logo. Whenever I look at that globe—with or without the gold—all I see is Continental. It’s almost like McDonalds merging with Burger King and using the BK logo instead of the Golden Arches. But it’s way better than the drab, hideous battleship gray & dark blue from the Stephen Wolf era.

    • Patrick says:

      I agree. It’s UNITED AIRLINES. “The Friendly Skies,” the tulip logo, etc. Yet the carrier takes most of its identity from Continental. Granted CO was a well-respected airline at the end, with a huge network, but still, it didn’t have the national or global recognition that UA had.

  23. Andrea G says:

    It’s the embodiment of the “graphic design is my passion” meme

  24. Dick Hardate says:

    It looks like it’s the output of an HR-facilitated design session — no connection to the business strategy; lack of focus on the target; watered down compromise… but everyone felt good and liked the M&M’s.

    – Freshly painted aircraft

    – The fairy dust on the top of the tail makes no sense
    – The blue globe design is flat, no depth. Looks like a cheap effort
    – The wavy “cheatline” is dated
    – Rhapsody Blue should have been the predominant color, not United Blue

    Overall, good intentions poorly executed — which is consistent with the United brand.

  25. Kevin says:

    I would add that the UNITED lettering is so interspersed with windows that it looks like it’s been printed on an old-style punched computer card. Ugh, it’s worse than a C!

    • Ad absurdum per aspera says:

      Nailed it. It is a spindled (one of the things you weren’t supposed to do to them) Hollerith card.

      Any decent designer would look at that row of windows and steer clear of them with either lettering or any kind of detail. You have no control over it — a random mix of windowshades with a sort of population average of what the interior and the passengers look like — but you do know that it’s probably going to contrast randomly, and busily, with whatever you do.

      Worse, it’s just following a trend.

      C’mon, folks: even small airliners are a big canvas, and you don’t need to punch holes in your own logotype by invading the window area just to show your name to people slightly further away.

      These design committees (which I’m sure they are — could any one person, no matter how bad at this, have a vision so muddled?) need to be locked in a conference room with nothing to eat but stale bagels and focus-group printouts, watching a slide show of that BOAC retro livery 747 until they come to their senses.

  26. Kevin Brady says:

    Yes, its pretty bad. The oversized name looks tacky – PanAm did the same thing with the same bad result. United had the worst and the best in the past. The grey military style look was depressing – Steven Wolf was the chairman back then and picked a livery that matched his personality – grey and flat.

    But then, the red, blue and orange livery of the 70’s and 80’s was by far the best with the double U on the tail and elegant lines down the fuselage – It was bright and lively – If it aint broke!!!!

    I don’t understand the corporate thing to always change, even when something is successful, I saw it all the time in business – everyone wanted to put their stamp on things and if you stood up for something good and wanted to leave it that way, you were told you had no imagination or creativity.

  27. Jim DeLaHunt says:

    The image is not displaying for me. Firefox says, ‘The image at “https://askthepilot.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Screen-Shot-2019-04-24-at-10.41.11-AM.png” cannot be displayed because it contains errors.’

  28. JamesP says:

    I have to wonder why they bother with anything Continental. It’s United now. I think the tail (OK, vertical stabilizer) should be immediately recognizable for what airline it is. There’s no mistaking an Iberia tail, or an American tail in the old livery. Love or hate the KLM livery, but by God there’s no mistaking whose tail it is. Same with Lufthansa and Japan Airlines (one of my alltime favorites!).

    This one is just stuff that has nothing to do with being United.

    • Rod says:

      It’s a nod to Continental and symbolizes the vocation of being a worldwide airline (sort of).

    • Torbett says:

      Iberia? The definition of generic. It looks like a fill-in computer generated anything airline for airport terminal designs. It is anything but identifiable. Now, the older Iberia livery… sure.

  29. Lee Taplinger says:

    A funny thing happened to police car livery as well. In the early ’70s sheriffs’ departments and city police suddenly started putting disco strobe stripes on the sides of their cars. How did it spread? How could so many cops have the same bad taste? Why are they still doing it today? Is there some ingredient in donuts? Does airline senior management eat too many donuts?

  30. Eric says:

    I knew your verdict would be negative. Let’s face it: when it comes to livery changes, you are an outright curmudgeon! But I do enjoy reading your critiques.

    • Rod says:

      A Livery Curmudgeon. Good description. Especially as Patrick and I often disagree (taste being inexplicable).

      Here’s another inexplicable thing: “This leaves Delta, for now, head and shoulders above the other U.S. majors.” The Delta livery really puts my teeth on edge. (I’m talking the tail fin.) Whoa! The colours clash unpleasantly. And there are a thousand better things you Could have done with that tail (such as the old long-time Delta logo/livery).

      As someone else here said, but in other words, if it ain’t broke, what drives these companies to compulsively “FIX” it?

      May the true beauties out there — Air France, Alitalia, KLM, Thai, and a few others — leave theirs the hell alone.

      • Patrick says:

        I’ll give you Air France. KLM would be on the list, too, if they hadn’t added that awful swoopy thing to the nose a couple of years ago. Thai is one that I can’t decide on. Mostly I like it, but sometimes it strikes me as a little over-the-top. Either way they get big kudos for staying with the orchid logo for, what, forty years at least?

    • Patrick says:

      I can’t help myself. One of my main goals, though, is to make readers laugh.

      At some point I’ll do a post about the liveries that I really like…

      Aeromexico (it’s beautiful, swoosh be damned!)
      Air France
      Air Canada
      Korean Air

      • Rod says:

        You’re harsher with KLM’s swoosh that Aeormexico’s. I hardly notice KLM’s anymore. Passing fashion, and minor.

        I could take AC were it not for the silly raccoon/zorro bit. That ruins Everything. (But no accounting for taste.)

        So when you do your Positive Piece, you’ll have to Defend that.

        • Patrick says:

          Aeromexico’s swoosh is a graceful and integral part of the livery. KLM’s is an ugly added flourish that does nothing except make each plane’s nose look bulbous.

        • Ben says:

          I am with Patrick on being a huge fan of Air Canada’s new livery. That livery has easily become one of my favorites, and it looks excellent on every plane used in the fleet. I cannot help but take a picture whenever I see an Air Canada plane in the new livery I love it so much.

    • Dave says:

      Dittos from me. I couldn’t help but read the second sentence this way:

      “Whenever a carrier announces a change is in the works, we prepare FOR ASK THE PILOT to be disappointed.”


  31. Larry Weidman says:

    Miss the brass ass.

  32. Allan B Elkowitz says:

    It seems like the more corporations pay for logo design, the worse the logo gets

  33. MikeO says:

    As far a big letter liveries go, I flew on ExpressAir back in 2010. I kind of liked it:


    Then they changed their name (from Express Air to Xpress Air to represent a more modern and customer-friendly airline) AND livery:


    So, Patrick. A or B? LOL.

  34. I wish American would go back to the all-metal Astrojets…I also wish they would go back to being a good airline 😉
    I like the JetBlue planes…a decent variety but not too off the wall.

  35. David Grossblat says:

    The unpleasure of seeing the new UA paint job was so terrifically offset by your terrific critique of it. Man o man, you have a second career here. Of the many great phrases and sentences, here’s the winner: “It’s a gaudy tail in a two-tone blue that’s at once syrupy and overexposed.” Keep ’em coming, P, more trips, more airplane stories, more aviation rants and thrills.

  36. Alan says:

    Patrick Smith: Art Critic. Cracks me up every time.

    Not that he’s wrong. Today’s corporate world is mostly incapable of producing the aesthetics that organizations of the same name could only a few generations back.

    Back then you had entrepreneurs and visionaries and canny risk-takers. Chances are some of them studied and collected art as a hobby aside from running and airline business. Some of them had taste.

    Today it is the money counters that call the shots. I would bet money that this paint job went out for competitive bid and some bland committee went and voted on it. This is exactly the kind of result you get when you do art by committee.

  37. Steve says:

    I think the stripe is purple, not black, but that doesn’t really improve things does it!

  38. Rod says:

    We’ll have to disagree. (No accounting for taste.) Not that I find the new livery Gorgeous. Or Brilliant. But thank goodness it’s at least SIMPLE (unlike so many that look as if a three-year-old had gone at it with spray paint).

    I’ll agree that the red-blue U-logo on white was far superior. Colourful, beautiful, just right. But what followed was not what *I* would call “handsome”. Grey fer cryin’ out loud? No. THAT was “corporate”: the boring, grey-suited, we’re-the-boring-company-for-boring-businessmen look. Awful.

    I do agree about the “curvy thing”. These airlines should get a life.

    But otherwise it’s clean, bold-blue UNITED on white. A True Continental-echoing, golden globe would have added a nice dash of extra colour. Yeah, globe, like Pan Am, that’s what they Do.

    • CarlosSi says:

      Echo… UA’s livery did that a couple of times. Their rainbow lines were still present in the battleship except thinner, and those same lines would turn into a fading blue the following livery.

  39. Simon says:

    Agree 100%. Bland, corporate, uninspired.

    But at least it’s consistent with the industry standard of how to design a livery these days™.

    1.) Paint it all white. Who said Eurowhite? It’s Globalwhite now.
    2.) Put corporate color on tail and add logo, ideally with little contrast
    3.) Add uninspired gimmicky swooshy thing courtesy of your marketing agency. That’ll be $10M thankyouverymuch.
    4.) Put your brand name in corporate color (see #2) and big fat letters on the fuselage.