July 2, 2014

The Yin & Yang of Airline Identity (Part One)

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Written by: Patrick Smith
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(Editor’s note: this is part one of a series by Patrick Smith; this first installment focuses on logos and liveries.)

There was a time, not terribly long ago, when the logo of Pan American World Airways was one of the most widely recognized commercial trademarks in the world. There was nothing remarkable about the symbol — a fissured, blue and Pan-Am-logo (1)white globe reminiscent of a basketball — but it worked. The globe appeared in the 1950’s 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 Thai Airways lotus. 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:

UPS-logos-2Take 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.

JAL-Crane (3)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?).

Northwest-Airlines-Logo1-150x150(4)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 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.

But 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. See Avianca, TACA, and El Al for three of the worst examples. “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 is 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 major airlines:

United-747(5)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

Delta-747(6)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

American-737(7)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 wasn’t anything beautiful, but give them credit for bucking four decades of design fads. American’s new look, launched in 2013, manages to be boring and garish at the same time. As already discussed, the real crime here was forsaking the ageless “AA” logo. I can live with the piano key tail and the ghostly gray typeface, but killing off that trademark was unforgivable.

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

Southwest-737(8)4. Southwest Airlines

The old 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 at least it was unassuming and geographically correct. Having expanded far afield, the airline’s look, if not its name, was thought something 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 hungry child. The roof of every plane is a cotton-candy purple, delineated from a neon-red underside by a nose-to-tail ribbon of yellow. Even the cowls and wheel hubs have been splashed with confection. Who signed off on this? Next time, hide the peyote.

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

US-Airways-A320(9)5. US Airways

Until a few years ago, US Airways had one the best schemes in the sky, with its smoky, post-apocalyptic gray and smart red accenting. The current design was unveiled in 2005 after the merger with America West, and attempted to incorporate motifs from both carriers. The flag and font are US Airways; the lightly sprayed fuselage jags are America West; the feeling is Walmart. Couldn’t they just have given everybody a watch? The tuck-under at the nose is especially frivolous and ugly.

Downmarket, cheap, contrived. Overall grade: D

Air-Canada-777(10)6. Air Canada

Taking a cue from US Airways, our friends to the north ignored the if-it-ain’t-broke clause mucked up one of the strongest looks around. The maple leaf lives on, and that’s a good thing, but it’s been strangely pixelated. The soapy blue fuselage is — how else to put it? — unique. It does have a certain glacial pallor, I guess, in keeping with things Canadian. It also evokes the tiling in an airport men’s room.

Just plain odd. Overall grade: D

JetBlue-A320(11)7. 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


AirTran-717 (128. AirTran

I reckon there isn’t an artist alive who could take white, teal green, royal blue, candy-apple red, and make them look good together, but that didn’t stop AirTran from trying. In case it wasn’t ugly enough, they threw in some gratuitous curves and swooshes. And while I confess to liking the big italicized “A” on the tail, somebody needs to reign in the tacky practice of painting website addresses on engine cowls and winglets.

Assertive, unconventional, unhinged. Overall grade: F (Note: Southwest’s takeover of AirTran means this one is being phased out.)

Alaska-737(13)9. Alaska Airlines

Ignoring that Alaska Airlines is actually based in Seattle, we love the parka-wearing Eskimo mascot, whose smiling face graces every tail. It’s a downhome — wherever home is, exactly — and effective touch. Revisionists have attempted to discredit the visage by claiming it’s the face of Old Man Winter, Johnny Cash, or even Che Guevara, but the airline’s communications department assures me he’s indigenous. In any case, he’s not the problem. What sinks this scheme is the frightful fuselage writing, running billboard-style ahead of the wing. If you ever try composing the word “Alaska” on an Etch-a-Sketch while being electrocuted, this is what you’ll come up with.

Folksy, ethnic, impossible to read. Overall grade: D

Hawaiian-A330(14)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.

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 DaVincian, ambivalent kind of smile that didn’t get under your skin — as if each plane were expressing contentment simply at being a plane. (Alaska’s Eskimo is smiling too, but I don’t trust him.) The PSA name, if not its good mood, has been retained by its inheritor, US Airways, and reassigned to one of their commuter affiliates. In Ohio. Deserves a frown if you ask me.

EgyptAir-A320 (15)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 downsize the little Taj-Mahalian window outlines to the point where you can’t 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, and all the similar novelties. Jetliner hulls have been painted up to commemorate everything from ethnic identity to the Olympics. One of the more distinguished was an Aborigine-inspired Qantas 747 called Nalanji Dreaming. By the mid 1990s this concept finally crossed an inevitable threshold, with carriers leasing out their exteriors to paying advertisers in the style of a Manhattan bus. Ryanair exploits this to boorish excess, as did the now-defunct Western Pacific Airlines, the Colorado-based operator whose “logojet” 737s advertised, among other things, hotel casinos and car rental companies. FOX-TV paid to have one of those 737s done up to promote “The Simpsons” — with Marge’s blue beehive riding up the tail. Western Pacific went bust around the time that “The Simpsons” finally became unwatchable (1996 was the last tolerable season), and billboard schemes have remained, for now, the exception and not the rule. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

This article was originally published on and is used here with the author’s permission. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and host of His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

About the Author

Patrick Smith



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  • Paul Wells

    Pan Am’s globe logo and the earlier winged globe logo live on, albeit not on airplanes. Guilford Transportation Industries owns the intellectual property of the former Pan American World Airways. In 2006 Guilford changed their railroad operations name from Guilford Rail System to Pan Am Railways. The railroad image evokes Pan Am.

  • Josh

    A few thoughts…
    1) Southwest’s planes are blue, not “cotton candy purple” the color is more commonly referred to as “Canyon Blue”. Not sure why you bash them so hard, its almost the same livery except swap desert gold for canyon blue, to me it is a more lively version of their original colors.
    2) How can you not trust the Alask eskimo?!
    3) All your reviews are really harsh. What do you expect airline liveries to be? captivating works of art? It seems to me that you’ve overlooked a major factor in airplane paint jobs, the weight of the paint. If you were to paint a 737 entirely one color it would increase the empty weight of the plane by about 300lbs. And it would cost at least $50,000. Airlines lose money every minute their planes aren’t flying, so why add days in the paint hangar adding a multitude of different colors and patterns? (It takes 7 days to paint a 737 one color alone). On top of all this, darker colors absorb heat versus lighter ones which reflect it, and who wants their expensive jet absorbing tons of heat on a hot day on the ramp? nobody! And to top it all off, planes spend most of their time 35,000 feet above the group where hardly anyone can see their paintjobs.
    Your expectations of liveries are way too high and your review of airline liveries is out of touch and harsh

  • Brian

    JetBlue has upgraded their livery. Larger type, more colors and designs on their tails

  • dub919

    Can I have my three minutes back? What a beating of a post. I feel like it was written by this guy:

  • Mike Brewer

    I think you forgot Fedex with the illusion of a forward arrow between the e and the x in Fedex. That is a great logo for a cargo carrier moving your freight forward.

  • MadLibertarian

    This is a terrible article. I like the liveries of Alaska, American, Jetblue, Southwest, Airtran, and US Airways, which you had no basis for giving them low marks. I also like Hawaiian’s, which fortunately you saw the light on. Delta’s livery, while I like the widget, is too white. I’d give that a C. I think you are being payed by United because that is the absolute worst livery here, they took Continental’s 1990s look and slapped the word United on it. I can see here I am not the only one that disagrees with this. While this is your opinion, not many people if anyone agrees with this at all.