Retro Mania

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?

 

Related Stories:

IT’S THE LOGO, STUPID
THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES
ET TU, KLM?
UNITED BLUES

BOAC photo courtesy of Misael Hernandez.

Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!

Leave a Comment

Maximum 1500 characters. Watch your spelling and grammar. Poorly written posts will be deleted!

40 Responses to “Retro Mania”
You are viewing newest comments first. Click to reverse order
  1. Mike Friedman says:

    Railroads have done a similar thing to American in the photo above. Several of them have painted locomotives in the livery of their predecessors.

    Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific have both done this, showing off the paint jobs of railroads that have been gone for sometimes 40 years. It’s fun. Nobody still thinks that the Missouri Pacific or Wabash Railroad still exists.

  2. Matthew says:

    I feel like United and Delta should have retro liveries for some of their long ago experiments that didn’t quite work out.

    Shuttle by United? Song? Ted? (Announcements like “Ted recommends keeping your seatbelt fastened at all times, even when the sign is off” made me want to throw up a little in my throat.)

    Where is the throwback to the hey day of early 00s legacy carriers trying to seem cool?

    (I’m being completely sarcastic here.)

  3. PeterS says:

    I like Hawaiian Air’s livery. Cheerful and relaxed. The airline employees seem that way as well.

    My son’s in the Army, and somehow managed to get himself stationed there, so we’ve been going out to visit the grandkids. Now that COVID seems to be ramping down, Hawaiian has restarted their Boston to Honolulu direct flights again. It’s a long haul out, but only 9-1/2 hours back.

    Haven’t had a bad experience with Hawaiian yet (knock wood)

    And I ‘m also a fan of the Pan Am logo. The railroad thing is a bit surreal, though.

  4. Dave says:

    I wonder if American will dare bring back PSA’s smile on a retroject…

  5. James Wattengel says:

    Hey Patrick, I just read a book (in Portuguese, unfortunately for you). It is called Pouso Forcado, by Daniel Leb Sasaki (Forced Landing) about the sad demise of the then premier Brazilian Airline PANAIR at the hands of the Military Government in 1965. Are you familiar with this story?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panair_do_Brasil

    • Patrick says:

      No. I know of PANAIR, but not much.

      I think maybe the demise of Varig was sadder. They were a big airline in their time. Beautiful old livery too — the one with the blue stripes. Maybe my favorite ever.

  6. Rafael says:

    The Retro mania reached Car Racing with NASCAR applying “retro schemes” to the cars, when they race at Darlington, SC.
    https://www.nascar.com/gallery/2020-darlington-throwback-paint-schemes/#photo-2

  7. Thomas says:

    Lufthansa have changed their livery various times, but have always used the crane logo. Originally this was the logo of an airline called DLR (Deutsche Luft Reederei) which started flying in 1919 and was a founding member of IATA. In 1923 the North German Lloyd, a big shipping company, became a major shareholder and the airline changed its name to “Deutscher Aero Lloyd”. The German national airline “Luft Hansa” resulted from the merger of the “Aero Lloyd” with “Junkers Luftverkehr” in 1926. “Luft Hansa” used the crane logo until it was shut down when Germany lost World War II in 1945. In 1954 West Germany started a new national airline called “Lufthansa”. Legally “Lufthansa” has nothing to do with “Luft Hansa”, but it has had the crane logo on its planes continuously since 1954.

  8. Dee says:

    United should bring back New York Air on the 737s (no MD-80s anymore). For those wondering why–NY was merged with CO in the misbegotten Frank Lorenzo ‘big bang’ of early 1987 that included PE and what was left of Frontier.

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/154529830941190892/

  9. Simon says:

    In these days of social media frenzy where everybody thinks they constitute a valuable contribution to public discourse, there appear to be more and more insecure people like Corey who are so barely keeping it together, that at the slightest sign of anybody challenging their make-believe honey and roses world, they have to run screaming and hide. God forbid somebody point out that something stinks, or that they disagree with somebody. Oh no! Conflict! And oh no, stop distracting me from telling myself all is wonderful and all is good. How am I to survive this harsh and cruel life if I can’t constantly tell myself all is great and we all love each other? Stop reminding me of reality! I will leave but I have to do so loudly protesting so everybody will see my sublime pouting. That’ll show em!

    Corey, go back to that cotton swab sugar-coated fantasy you call a life. The rest of us prefer to face the real world still wearing our big boy pants. We can take it.

  10. Corey Bramblett says:

    Honestly don’t understand what makes you happy or what pisses you off, Patrick…

    you hate a barely noticeable graphic design update for a freaking bunny pasta box, you harp for years on the redesign of old plane livery, yet you hate it when the airlines finally try to go retro. You’re an armchair designer and a professional complainer.

    Oh yeah, and you don’t believe in masks or prevention of a pandemic.

    You fell off man. I enjoyed it, but I just can’t do it any more. Peace. I hope you find some kind of happiness.

    • Patrick says:

      Corey! Have you considered Ex-Lax, or maybe including more fiber in your diet? It could do wonders for your constipation. I’d also recommend meditation or perhaps a regimen of low-dose hallucinogens to help relax your mind so you can regain a sense of humor. What is wrong with you? My Can you not just read and be entertained?

      Meanwhile, if you insist on being a twat, do it accurately. I was against masks at the outset, as was the CDC and the U.S. Surgeon General. They changed their position, and so did I. Unfortunately the mask thing has been hijacked by extremists. Hang around my neighborhood and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. People getting harassed for not gardening while masked, a hundred feet from the nearest person… that sort of thing. I’m not opposed to masks; I’m opposed to people acting like lunatics.

      And thanks for the wish of happiness. That’s kind of you, and not at all patronizing or obnoxious. I’ll do my best, I PROMISE!

  11. Rich says:

    For a long time I thought North Central’s logo was a goose as well, but it’s a duck — and his name is Herman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Central_Airlines

  12. Peter says:

    Hi Patrick, great article, as always. Singapore Airlines have been a constant since their inception back in 1972 after splitting from what was then MSA. I don’t believe there has ever been a change of livery or uniform. Cheers.

  13. Rafael says:

    Hi Patrick!

    I agree related to American “Heritage” liveries, I think they tried to leave everybody happy and sometimes, changes of brand, colours or whatever, can be confusing for the untrained eye. I recall flying on a SkyTeam livery plane and some old ladies wondering what “SkyTeam stands for”. At least, they brought a lot of Retro liveries to this European White boring world.

    And better late than never, Aerolineas Argentinas finally introduced a Retro livery on LV-GOO. Although, there are some 73W still “retro-painted” in the previous scheme. 😉

  14. Alberto says:

    Alitalia still has fundamentally the same 1967 Landor logo. The 2014 refresh, also by Landor,is nowhere near as good as the original, by the way. Granted, they’ve got worse problems these days than a logo.

  15. 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

  16. Earl Boebert says:

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

  17. 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.

  18. 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

  19. NineEighteen says:

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

  20. Jeff Latten says:

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

  21. Andrew says:

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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”.

  30. 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…