Ask the pilot

What in heaven's name was Japan Airlines thinking when it ditched the crane? The pilot offers some lessons in airliner art appreciation.

Published May 9, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

I remember one day in 1997, taxiing at the controls of my Jetstream turboprop and encountering the gaudy spectacle of EgyptAir's newest livery as one of its planes crossed in front of us. Gone were the earthy red stripes and gold highlights. Up on the tail, Horus, the Egyptian sky god, was now oversized and floating in a tawdry field of blue.

The colors of a nation's flag carrier, I declaimed to my copilot, should evoke the imagery of that country, as did EgyptAir's prior design. The sandy tones reminded one of the Egyptian desert, with its great stone Sphinx and pyramids. The new EgyptAir seemed more reminiscent of the Vegas version of Luxor than of any true Egyptian imagery. Worse, the stark white fuselage, aside from being a coarse contrast with the blue tail, brought to mind ... well, not much at all.

The right corporate image, of course, helps propagate a sense of tradition and esteem. Take the old Pan Am globe, homely as it might have been. There is, or was, no better-recognized symbol in all of aviation. Or American's famous AA. Or Aeroflot's winged hammer and sickle, which it continues to use long after the Soviet breakup. The airlines take it seriously. When Northwest revealed an updated look in 1989, it issued a complicated set of guidelines to all its corporate departments detailing exactly how the name and logo could be reproduced in various situations, from ground-support vehicles to office stationery.

Ideally, the lineup of jetliners at a major airport can read like an atlas of international icons: the Lebanese cedar of Middle East Airlines, the shamrock of Aer Lingus, the winged springbok of South African, the Olympic rings of Olympic. The trick, of course, is to do it attractively. We also could mention the "Sir Turtle" mascot of Cayman Airways, who looks as if he just crawled out of a Bosch painting, or the tropical nightmare of Air Jamaica.

In the past decade we've seen dozens of airlines reinvent themselves through fresh paint. Not since the 1960s, when markings were first taken seriously by the airlines, has there been such an industry-wide investment. Corporate identities have been recast, usually at great expense, by big-name firms around the world. The most prolific of these is Landor Associates, a company with offices in 16 countries, which has overhauled the images of several world-class carriers from Northwest to Cathay Pacific.

The result is a more colorful tarmac, sure, but perhaps too rakish for its own good. We've seen some gems, and the past several years have been a period of tasteful restraint, of pleasantly muted tones and detailed textures. But sadly, and predictably, there have been some dogs as well, including a few inexcusable atrocities. All in all there are fewer lasting impressions, fewer of the easily identified tails we once knew. As for the implications, June Fraser, president of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, puts it like this: "National airlines change their identities at their own peril." It's all become bright, bold and quirky, but at the same time cheaply temporal and superficial.

Even obnoxious. Consider what Landor has done to Gulf Air, the carrier of Bahrain and heretofore wearer of one of my favorite liveries. God forbid, in this age of in-your-face corporate pitch, we dare ask a passenger to discover and appreciate subtlety. Behold Gulf Air's abomination of gilded excess, complete with a monsterized falcon -- white, navy, and lots and lots of gold. Perfect, maybe, for a sultanate swimming in cash.

If there's anything that the latest looks all share, it's the proliferation of the solid-color fuselage. The once familiar "cheat line," that thin band of paint stretching across the windows from nose to tail, is on the brink of extinction. There was a time when virtually every airliner hull was decorated by this simple horizontal striping, enhanced by nothing more elaborate than the airline's name above the forward boarding door. In 2003, the cheat line has gone the way of those drive-up stairs and cheesecake desserts between Boston and Washington.

Sure, there have always been some notable rogues. Three decades ago, Braniff International was famous for dousing whole planes in glossy reds, oranges and purples, pastel limes and powder blues. In 1973 Alexander Calder was commissioned to decorate the exterior of a Braniff DC-8, and later, for the Bicentennial, a 727. (Calder was working on a third Braniff plane, "Flying Colors of Mexico," at the time of his death.) But today -- and forgive me if my marketing acumen is old-fashioned -- travelers watching from a terminal window are asking the one question they should never ask: What airline is that?

As with Braniff's novelties of the '60s and '70s, today's de rigueur design relies on a perception of the airplane as a whole, rather than a separate body and fin. Traditional paint jobs approached these surfaces separately, while contemporary ones strive to marry body and tail in a continuous canvas.

If the overall color is white, as is often the case, the tail becomes the focal point -- an axis around which the entire impression revolves. Clever examples, like those of Emirates, have powerful fin markings that carry the entire, otherwise colorless aircraft. Similarly, Virgin Atlantic employs distinctive red engine cowls, while Gulf Air's use of Arabic script and a brief colored pattern near the nose was, until recently, quite fetching. Some have gone to a flying-warehouse extreme -- an empty white expanse with little or no detailing aside from a capriciously placed acronym and registration -- but most choose to exhibit at least partially rendered fuselages, avoiding the old-timey cheat line but without the anemic whiteness.

Whether stripes, solids, white, purple or green, it ought to be done tastefully. With that in mind, let's critique and grade each of the 10 largest airlines of the United States. Here they are, arranged in order of passengers carried so far this year:

1. American Airlines

One of the few vintage holdouts, American hasn't changed since the early 1970s. The author's first ever airplane ride, in 1974, was aboard an American Airlines 727, and I have a photo of myself climbing the forward airstairs of that plane. In the 29 years that have elapsed, I have grown 2 feet taller, gained a hundred pounds, and lost my hair, but an American Airlines jetliner in 2003 looks precisely the way it did in '74 -- with its polished silver aluminum, gothic tail bird, and tricolor cheat line. There's nothing particularly beautiful about it, but for no bigger reasons than generic attractiveness and nostalgia, it works.

Archetypal, homely, unassuming. Overall grade: C

2. Delta Air Lines

The executives in Atlanta have changed their minds twice now since the late 1990s, this time gunning for something a bit flashier than the stodgy Delta standard. The latest features bands of red, blue and lighter blue (meant to suggest white?) unfurling across the vertical stabilizer like a giant shower curtain. It's also a near mimicry of the flags of Russia, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Quite a good-looking tail, but it lacks any sort of meaningful symbolism. An eye-catcher for the sake of itself, probably doomed to yet another replacement in five or 10 years. The rest of the airplane is a brutally conspicuous field of white, and Delta's well-known "widget" has morphed into a kind of frumpy, half-melted triangle.

Innovative, showy, geographically incorrect. Overall grade: B

3. Southwest Airlines

Of all the motifs to choose from among the landscapes and cultures of the American Southwest, Herb Kelleher and his team chose plain, lengthwise fillets of red, mustard and sienna, which for 30 years composed the uniform of Southwest Airlines. OK, if the concept wasn't imaginative, at least the hues were desert-esque. But having expanded as far afield as Oregon and New Hampshire, the airline's look, if not its name, was thought something too parochial, and so it has been, um, refreshed. The roof of every airplane is now a bright, syrupy blue, joining an underside of neon red, delineated by an arcing, nose-to-tail ribbon of yellow. If it sounds profuse, wait until you see it. A Southwest jet looks like an overly rich dessert concocted by a starving child. It's a vision of peyote-induced lunacy -- a carnival clash of in-your-face incandescence. Even the fairings, engine cowls and wheel hubs have been splashed with molten confection. And in a bizarrely tasteless nod to the original scheme (ah, must be "tradition"), the aft corner of the tail retains a swath of the old mustard.

Garish, insane, may rot your teeth. Overall grade: F

4. United Airlines

Beautiful in the right light, United is otherwise too dark, thanks to its inky gray foundation. Pilots on busy taxiways hate it, as the airplane dissolves into shadow during nighttime operations (which is better, they'll remind us, than dissolving into corporate insolvency). A better version would be a lighter upper fuselage with the name in red or navy. Still, it's a dashing airplane.

Dusky, bloated, stylish. Overall grade: B

5. Northwest Airlines

Northwest's makeover, which debuted only weeks ago, is one of the atrocities mentioned above. The previous version, with its thickly layered red and gray, was always a little too rich, but the airline's circular corporate logo was, quite simply, 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, actually, and a smart and timeless design, perhaps the single best trademark ever created by our friends at Landor. Now it's in the waste can, bastardized into a meaningless abstraction: a lazy circle and small triangular arrow. And it's not just Northwest Airlines any more, it's "nwa," in coyly affected lowercase. Only the sleek brushed-silver body keeps it from winning an F.

Tragic, ruinous, dismally austere. Overall grade: D

6. US Airways

With its smoky, post-apocalyptic gray and unadorned outline of the American flag, a US Airways jet is, at a quick glance, drably reminiscent of a military transport. But look again. The slight red accenting is remarkably effective, the typeface refined and elegant. This one's a winner.

Cool, clean, classy. Overall grade: A

7. Continental Airlines

Here's one that's pretty good with a bare fuselage (it's actually a two-tone white/gray with a very thin stripe), and it's immensely more pleasing than the overwrought mishmash of red, orange and gold that it replaces. Continental's logo -- a sectioned globe against a navy background -- is one of the more handsome, if a bit too conservative, tail markings around.

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

8. America West

Two things work against the Arizona-based carrier's funky identity, last tweaked in 1996. First, the AW emblem looks like an eviscerated plum teetering atop a mountain. And while the lightly sprayed jags along the fuselage allude to a Western vista (or a quivering sheen of heat rising from the Phoenix tarmac), the airline's typeface, in oversized letters down the side, can only be described as "Flintstones Modern."

Awkward, lively, cartoonish. Overall grade: D

9. Alaska Airlines

Never mind that Alaska Airlines is actually based in Seattle; they deserve credit for sticking with their parka-wearing Inuit tail mascot, if we dare call him such. It's a down-home (wherever home is, exactly) but effective touch. The Alaska name, however, which runs billboard-style in front of the wing, ruins everything. We assume the script is intended to look breezy and modern, but it seems to have been penned by their Inuit in the throes of electrocution.

Folksy, blurry, ethnically confused. Overall grade: D

10. AirTran

AirTran is the former ValuJet, which made the ill-advised decision to retain its silly "critter" logo (a grinning caricature of an airplane) following the Everglades crash in 1996. Somehow a cartoon plane with flailing wings and a freakish smile doesn't convey the best message after an FAA shutdown. Now reborn, it has tightened ship with an unorthodox -- and somewhat comely -- vertical banding of teal, red and blue supported by an unusual beige undercoat. Basically it's the ValuJet blueprint, but with improved hues and a smart new tail. The undercoat is a just a shade too jaundiced.

Assertive, businesslike, refreshing. Overall grade: B

That covers all the U.S. majors. I wonder what Sister Wendy would say.

You'd figure, maybe, the Europeans would outstyle us, but that's not necessarily true. Take a look sometime at the clunky green of Alitalia, or the Spanish airline, Iberia. When it comes to liveries, it's tough to draw a connection between geography and vogue.

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 showcasing artwork from a different part of the world, were chosen to grace the tails of BA aircraft. Out went the quartered Union Jack and heraldic crest, and in came "Delftblue Daybreak," "Nalanji Dreaming," and "Primavera." It was all very progressive, multicultural and utterly hideous. Newell and Sorell, creators of the campaign, called it "a series of uplifting celebrations." A slightly more cynical source called it "a wallpaper catalog," which is exactly what the gallery of tails looked like. The queen herself reportedly held her nose when asked to comment. The airline gave in to the outcry, eventually ditching "World Images" for a fleetwide red, white and blue scheme that instead makes every BA aircraft look like a huge can of Pepsi.

The author's perennial favorite belongs to Air India, with its sexy red swoosh and alternating English/Hindi script. Look carefully at an Air India jet and you'll notice how each cabin window is meticulously outlined with the shape of a Moghul arch. (And as I've written previously, an airport scene during an episode of "The Simpsons" once portrayed this with surprising accuracy.) Air India is the only airline I know of to have changed liveries, as it did briefly about 10 years ago, only to change back again to the original.

If I have to choose a worst of the worst, it would have to be the new Japan Airlines (JAL). For decades JAL's company logo was a quintessentially Japanese one, a stylized depiction of the crane, lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of a rising sun. It was a graceful, proud and unmistakable trademark, worn on the side of every JAL aircraft. Effective earlier this year, the crane is being phased out and replaced by something so awful that it defies description, an insipid red and gray slash mark accompanied by a giant, blood-red splotch oozing across the tail.

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Special thanks to the amazingly comprehensive database at for the photography linked to this column. This site allows you to pull up not only representative models and airlines, but specific, individual aircraft. Inserting the registration number of a plane I recently flew on -- an American 737 done up in retro '60s colors -- the site spat out a whopping 60 photographs of this one jet. The Air India 747 above is the same of which I purchased the metal replica in Miami two months ago. And I had 33 shots to choose from. The Boeing 767s chosen above to represent American and United -- N334AA and N612UA -- are the two airplanes that hit the World Trade Center.

So if your beloved proposes to you in seat 5E, or you have some kind of life-changing epiphany in row 32, and would like a frameable immortalization of the setting, simply jot down the plane's registration and see if Airliners has its picture.

(Portions of this article appeared in Airliners magazine -- no connection to the above site -- in 1998.)

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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