Retro Mania. Have We Gone Vintage Livery Crazy?

March 30, 2021

WHAT YEAR is it anyway? It’s hard to tell these days looking around the tarmac, as airline after airline jump on the retro livery bandwagon. I could name fifty carriers from every corner of the route map — from Air Canada to Qantas to Turkish — that have painted up one or more of their jets in colors from the past. Every day I see a new example somewhere on Instagram or in the travel blogs. The phenomenon is so common that it needs a name. Hence I am coining the term “retrojet.”

Whether this is symptomatic of some greater cultural infatuation with the past I can’t say. Whatever its cause, I like it. Have we gotten carried away? Heck no. As far as I’m concerned, keep them coming.

Many of these reprised schemes were originally put to pasture for good reason. They were ugly and timeworn. Others, such as the 1970s-era colors replicated on the British Airways 747 shown above (itself since retired in the wake of COVID), are gorgeous, and seeing them again has been a sad reminder of just how cheap and debased the modern livery has become.

But this isn’t the point. We’re not supposed to be judging them on aesthetic merits. They’re historical reminders. Like photographs come to life, they provide a bit of time-travel for nostalgic passengers (and employees). And, they’re fun. They turn heads, break the monotony, and give us something to reminisce about. Sure, some of them are unattractive. They have to be.

But if you’re going to do it, do it right. American Airlines has more retrojets than anyone, paying tribute to the many companies that it merged with, gobbled up, or that otherwise have a role in its history: TWA, America West, Piedmont, AirCal, PSA, etc. This is an airline with some complicated DNA, and the effort makes sense. The problem is, they didn’t go far enough. Below is a photo I took recently of an Airbus A319 honoring Allegheny Airlines. A major player for decades in the eastern half of the country, Allegheny changed its name to USAir in 1979, then to US Airways later on, until merging with American in 2013.

So, what is this exactly? The striping and tail is vintage Allegheny. They even took the trouble of including the “VJ” registration suffix, worn by that carrier’s DC-9s back in the day. But then they spoil the whole thing by slapping “American” in full-sized lettering across the side, replete with that dismal logo it introduced a few years ago. American’s other examples follow the same template. The result isn’t quite nostalgic and isn’t quite modern. It’s a jumble that undermines the intent.

If you want to include a small “American Airlines” decal as part of the design, that’s fine. But don’t create a clunky hybrid that the average traveler can’t make sense of. Even if you’ve never heard of Allegheny Airlines, a jet in that airline’s full colors would at least be coherent, not to mention historically accurate. A paintjob that’s part American and part Allegheny is just confusing.

AA’s better and more honest throwback effort was its “Astrojet” 737s, which debuted over 20 years ago. These were some of the very first planes to sport a heritage livery. I remember the thrill that I got riding one from Miami to Panama.

Meanwhile, a peculiar holdout in this game has been Delta. The nation’s third-largest carrier, whose lineage is almost as colorful and complicated as American’s, is yet to give us a single retrojet. I’m unsure what the reluctance has been, but I’d love to see an A350 in the airline’s 1970s-era blue and red stripes with the black nose. Or how about a 757 in North Central colors. Lots of opportunities here.

Maybe, though, along with other carriers who’ve resisted, it considers the idea a watering-down of its image. Delta has a strong brand identity and chooses to keep it intact and untarnished, across the board. Boring, but logical. More importantly, these things cost money. Not blowing cash on unnecessary paintjobs is something shareholders, not to mention US taxpayers, might appreciate right now.

Delta has no retrojets but could. JetBlue, on the other hand, has one but shouldn’t. The JFK-based airline has decorated an Airbus A320 in an old-timey scheme 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. It’ also completely made-up. JetBlue has only been in operation since 2000, and this livery never existed. They do have a gift for self-promotion, that jetBlue, and here they’ve been especially clever.

For what it’s worth, had the company been around in, say, 1973, its planes probably would have looked like this…

This gets me thinking. What is the longest-surviving airline livery out there? Who, amidst the frenzy of redesigns we’ve seen over the past decade, has hung on?

One that comes to mind is Air France. Although its typeface has changed and the tail has been streamlined, the overall uniform has been the same for 40 years. KLM is another. Others have gone with new looks but retained meaningful portions of earlier identities: Aeroflot’s winged hammer and sickle, for instance, or JAL’s beautiful Tsurumaru logo, which it brought back after a disastrous mid-1990s revision.

Who am I forgetting?

 

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BOAC photo courtesy of Misael Hernandez.

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22 Responses to “Retro Mania. Have We Gone Vintage Livery Crazy?”
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  1. Greg Sergienko says:

    Alaska’s had its logo for a long time. There have been slight changes, and they have did away with the native Alaskan for a bit, but popular demand brought it back. Here’s a write-up. https://www.seattlepi.com/business/article/Alaska-Airlines-inuit-logo-plane-who-13161883.php

  2. Earl Boebert says:

    Well, there’s the Braniff Calders, Pacific Southwest’s smile, and North Central’s Goose.

  3. Carlos Si says:

    Avianca comes to mind. I miss their previous livery with the red top and the … awfully abstract but seemingly pleasant neckerchief logo. Not exactly retro but modern.

    Off-topic, LATAM’s logo is nice but I sorta still prefer the old LAN one. I get it they merged with TAM to form one centralized big, Latin American carrier though.

  4. R Laurence Davis says:

    I believe Bahamasair livery is pretty much the same. I have been flying with them for close to 35 years. Of course, it has had to change with their aircraft as they went from the boxy Shorts to DASH to 737’s and ATR’s

  5. NineEighteen says:

    Canadian cargo airline CargoJet has an excellently retro scheme. Ever seen it? Looks beautiful on a 767.

  6. Jeff Latten says:

    That JetBlue livery at the bottom of the article is hideous.

  7. Andrew says:

    I have not seen a Western Airlines livery. Delta should paint one in the 1960s design. Very classic.

  8. Matt W says:

    Delta used to have a retrojet, but they don’t anymore. In the mid 2000s they had a 767 painted in a 1930s style livery. As I recall it was to celebrate the airline’s 75th birthday.

    For long lived liveries, are we only counting ones that are still in use today? Because American’s old polished aluminum with red, white, and blue stripes was used from around 1969 until whenever they introduced the current one.

  9. Bill says:

    Believe it or not the rights to the Pan Am logo belong to a railroad. Pan Am Railways operates in New England mostly north and west of Boston. Why did a railway buy rights to an airline logo? Apparently the owner liked the logo and bought it and used it to rebrand the railroad formally known as the Guilford Rail System. It doesn’t make much sense and it really doesn’t look right on a locomotive.
    See the website at panamrailways.com

  10. Craig Haritos says:

    Singapore Airlines

    • Patrick says:

      Yes, you’re right. The basic SQ scheme hasn’t been changed in ages. I’m not a huge fan of it. The logo and tail are enduring classics, but the stripes and lettering are clunky.

  11. Tom says:

    LOT had their previous livery from 1977 up until the early 2010’s when they altered it together with the introduction of the Dreamliner to their fleet. They still haven’t repainted all their planes yet, so there’s quite a few Embraers wearing the previous livery—that has to be a candidate I’d imagine. The crane on their tale has also been the logo more or less since the airline’s foundation.

  12. Craig says:

    They call them “heritage” paint schemes. It was actually done first by the railroads honoring all of the “fallen flags”, which are the old railroads that were merged into the major players. You can find Union Pacific locomotives with paint schemes that honor fallen flags like the Rio Grande, Southern Pacific, Western Pacific, and so on.

  13. Michael N says:

    I believe the base Air NZ Koru design has been in use since at least 1973

    https://airlinecolorschemes.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/air-new-zealand-1973/

    There have been some changes, most recently from a blue background to black, but the Koru has been around for a very long time.

    • Patrick says:

      The Koru is a great logo and yes, it’s been around for decades. The rest of the livery, though, has changed dramatically. Take a look at the 1980s incarnation compared to today’s.

  14. Thomas F. says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice to see…

    Raymond Loewy’s TWA “Twin Globes” livery on an American Airlines B787-9
    Charles Forberg’s Pan AM “blue meatball” livery on a United B787-9
    Saul Bass’s Continental “Jet Stream” logo on a United B777-300ER
    South African Airways “springbok” livery on an A350-900 (I always thought SAA’s 747SP in this livery looked really sharp)

    Honorable mentions to older liveries I would like to see flying again…
    National Airlines
    Korean Air Lines
    China Airlines

    • Patrick says:

      I’d be hesitant to bring a Pan Am livery back. The airline was parted out over time to different carriers. United and Delta are the two that remain, but it’s not like either has any real claim to the name or logo. I say let it rest in peace.

      I guess that makes National a no-go as well. Which is too bad; theirs was a pretty one.

  15. Tom B. says:

    Keep them coming, indeed! What I’d really like to see would be a permanent return to some of these, in particular the ‘70s American livery and logo that got trashed in favor of the ridiculous “flag on the tail fin” mess that they currently use. Or even the ’60s “Astrojet” theme would be an improvement. Also, I wish United would bring back their ’70s era paint job: The red, blue and orangish stripes on the white fuselage and the “tulip” logo on the tail were beautiful. The globe logo that’s been used since the merger literally screams “CONTINENTAL”.

  16. STACEY says:

    JetBlue, based in NY and using the official state tricolors: blue white and orange — originally of Dutch origin, as used by the Mets, etc…