Ask the pilot

Name games: After his stint as airline logo consultant, the pilot jumps into a semantic mud pit.

Published July 22, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

"My goodness," writes a reader from California in response to our recent look at airline logos and liveries. "An aviation expert writing about corporate identity. How about we hire a graphic designer to critique your next landing."

The majority of you took no offense, however. "Workmanlike," commented one person. "Brilliant," offered another. That's good enough for me, so let's keep going:

I'll begin by drawing yet another strange parallel between aviation and baseball: At a Red Sox game not long ago, I was astounded and dismayed by the endless variations of Major League Baseball-sanctioned souvenir shirts and caps -- none of them representing the actual team colors. Last I checked, the players wear dark navy caps and a white uniform (a light gray for away games and red on certain home dates). But over in the gift shops you can purchase a Red Sox cap in yellow, orange or pink; a Curt Schilling shirt in Kelly green. All across the league it's the same story.

In much the way Major League Baseball has cheapened itself by promoting the sale of merchandise in "unofficial" colors, the airlines have done the same through a flurry of capricious new liveries and promotional paint jobs. Years ago, a plane-spotter at Kennedy Airport could identify the tails of 50 different carriers from as many countries with a quick scan of the tarmac. Today he needs a field guide. It's all flashy, quirky and cool, but the designs are so varied, and they change so quickly, that the end result is a great cluster of anonymity. What airline is that?

Those powder pink Red Sox caps are decipherable through the embedded "B" logo. If nothing else, at least the team's signature symbol remains sacred and unchanged. The "B" has endured, though elsewhere it's another story. Have you seen what happened to the Toronto blue jay or, to switch sports for a moment, how about that iconic New England patriot turned Hollywood alien monster? As we saw last week, many classic airline logos have, for better or worse, survived with minimal change -- Air Canada, Aeroflot and Lufthansa for example. Others -- the UPS shield and Northwest's outstanding "NW" compass -- have evolved drastically.

Now, having gotten this far, I'm aware that a number of you probably consider the fetishizing of logos and liveries to be wasteful and misguided. "Although it makes for interesting reading," writes reader Shaukat Khan, "how many folks really care what the logos mean or what they convey? How many fliers choose a particular airline because they like the logo? Most people simply go for the cheapest fare."

Khan is correct on both counts: The majority of passengers indeed will opt for the cheapest ticket, no matter what beautiful or offensive design lurks on the tail. And it does make for interesting reading. The whole point of this critique is to underscore a facet of the industry seldom considered by the millions of people who fly daily. When challenged to present an example of how, in this era of unbearable hassle and discomfort, a person can possibly savor even a minute of the typical air travel experience, this is one of my choice nuggets: Look around and check out the paint schemes. They're colorful, curious and often meaningful in ways you wouldn't expect.

Khan's argument makes sense on a certain level, but it's too simplistic. For an airline, like any commercial entity vying for customers and their cash, not cultivating an identity is simply not an option. In rawest form, Khan's logic would dictate that airlines merely identify themselves by number and post a list of fares.

Though considering many of the names chosen by upstart carriers of late, that might not be a bad idea. Truth is, all the graphic design genius in the world will go straight into the lav when offset by a poorly chosen moniker. It's not only about colors and abstract impressions but about the raw impact -- the sound -- of an airline's name.

In months past we managed to clear up the controversy surrounding the world's most famous nonexistent airline, "China Air," and once examined a list of Russian aviation tongue twisters. Welcome aboard Aviaobshchemash. No airline should be named after the sound a person makes when gargling aquarium gravel, but better a string of unpronounceable syllables than something outright goofy or stupid. Just as it's hard for me to take a singer seriously if he calls himself Prince or Sting, I'd have a hard time patronizing an airline called Wizz Air.

Needless to say, there are millions of fans who, through their lousy taste in music, have already invalidated that particular comparison, but you get the point. I'm all for a name that adheres to the staples of aeroculture thus far in the 21st century -- sleekness, affordability, a break with convention -- but there needs to be a line drawn somewhere. Song, for example, Delta's leisure market spinoff, is a great concept with a host of marketing segues at its disposal. Same thing for JetBlue. At the other extreme we have -- and you thought I was kidding -- Wizz Air, a growing, low-cost entrant from Hungary.

The current volume of JP Fleets International lists approximately 2,600 registered commercial operators on six continents. Deciding which of these has the absolute worst name is a tough chore, with qualifiers ranging from Germany's Lips Flugdienst to Ukraine's Kroonk Airlines to a tiny Kenyan outfit known as -- I am not making this up -- Trackmark. My favorite used to be a first-place tie. We had the nervy confidence of Russia's Kras Air, described by one wag as "always just an 'H' away from infamy," and the do-it-yourself spirit of Taiwan's since shuttered U-Land Airlines.

However, none of these names is as good, which is to say as horrible, as that of a nine-year-old Spanish charter line called -- are you ready? -- Air Plus Comet. This operator of 10 or so Boeings and Airbuses was presumably named by the CEO's 4-year-old daughter. Additional raspberries are owed to upstart companies like Britain's MyTravel Airways and our own USA 3000, the Philadelphia-based subsidiary of Apple Vacations Inc. It's good to be ahead of your time, but a whole millennium?

Of course, there are often issues of translation and cross-cultural confusion at hand. I have no idea what U-Land was truly all about, but Lufthansa, Aer Lingus and Aeroflot, to pick three, are little more than local-tongue variants of the word "airline." Meanwhile, an insignificant charter company in Africa doesn't have to care, necessarily, what its name happens to connote for people in the United States (particularly in the brain of some smart-aleck columnist).

In line with my fondness for clever and evocative logos, I've always been a fan of carrier names that utilize cultural associations or bestow a little nuance. We're accustomed to the likes of Air France, Air New Zealand and South African Airways, but there's nothing more boring than a carrier that takes the easy way out, exploiting the name of its country and nothing more. Avianca is a gorgeous word; "Air Colombia" would be awful. Olympic will always be better than "Air Greece," and Iberia is pleasantly rich compared with, say, "Spanish Airways" (or the atrociously titled Spanair, which actually exists). Malev is infinitely better than "Hungarian Air," and Varig wins any day over "Air Brazil." The national carrier of Bhutan is Druk Air, which raises its share of snickers among travelers to that sheltered Himalayan kingdom, but nonetheless has an almost mysterious ring that beats anything so dry and predictable as "Air Bhutan."

Exotic-sounding Garuda is the airline of Indonesia, borrowing its name from a Hindu deity. It's perplexing in that Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, but let's not bicker, lest it be switched to "Air Indonesia." Such things occasionally happen. I always found AirLanka to be a nice choice -- self-explanatory while not blatantly obvious. Alas, as part of a makeover some years ago it became SriLankan Airlines.

If you insist on directly invoking your homeland, please do it with a bit of flair. KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines), Royal Air Maroc and Royal Jordanian are examples (the latter was formerly called Alia, dubbed in honor of the late King Hussein's daughter). Elsewhere, Air-India throws in a hyphen, don't ask me why, while EgyptAir and Syrianair employ the camel-cap or all-in-one methods.

Here in the States we have only one country but an obscene number of airlines, leaving little room for variants that pay homage to our homeland. American Airlines and US Airways have more or less cornered the market. Others have clung to labels they've literally outgrown, though people don't always mind, or even notice. Thirty-five years ago, Southwest Airlines was an intrastate operator confined to the boundaries of Texas. Today, am I the only one who ponders the incongruity of hopping a Southwest jet between Providence, R.I., and Baltimore, Md.? For that matter, what's so northwesterly about flying Northwest Airlines from Bangkok to Tokyo?

Considerably more troubling are those airlines that seem to be in the throes of total geographic disorientation. We question the wisdom, not to mention the navigational skills, of a Portuguese charter company that dares to call itself Air Luxor. Air Sahara comes from India, a good 3,000 miles off course, and how about Air Atlanta, hailing from Reykjavik, Iceland. What does Iceland have to do with Georgia? Nothing, and Air Atlanta admits to picking the name at random.

Northwest's homey geographic association is ironic, considering the convolution of compass points that constitute the airline. Known as Northwest Orient at the time, it merged with Republic Airlines in 1985. Republic was itself the recent amalgam of North Central Airlines, (Minneapolis), Southern Airlines (Atlanta) and Hughes Airwest (Phoenix).

Then again, is it even Northwest anymore, or merely "nwa," as displayed on its jets in coyly affected lowercase? (And yes, a certain implication of "nwa" is duly noted. Presumably the execs in Minneapolis were aware of this, figuring the namesake L.A. gangstas had drifted far enough out of the pop culture consciousness to justify use of the letters.)

This lowercase thing is growing more and more popular. Chile's highly regarded airline LAN now goes by Lan, while the former Yugoslav national carrier JAT, founded in 1947, is now Jat Airways. JAT used to be an abbreviation for Jugoslovenski Aerotransport. (And note how its typeface and stylings are a shameless JetBlue knockoff.)

Among the mainline U.S. competitors, I have a soft spot for Delta. The word is crisp, is easy to say and remember, and avoids fumbling with any obvious regional reference. The Atlanta-based giant, originally founded in Monroe, La., takes its name from the famous southern terminus of the Mississippi River. If you happen to know that, all the better, but to most people it has a generic appeal much like the names of many cars, though immeasurably more potent than, say, a clunker like AirTran.

Qantas, by the way, is not the name of an indigenous Australian marsupial. It's an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service. Old-fashioned, complicated and perfect.

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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