Ask the pilot

The science and psychobabble of air carrier identity: From Zoroastrianism to "touch lines," just what are the airlines trying to say?


Patrick Smith
July 29, 2005 11:30PM (UTC)

Not that you asked, but we've gotten to the bottom of why Air-India employs the man-horse centaur of Greek mythology as its official logo.

Air-India's earliest long-range planes were Lockheed Constellations, the first one taking off in 1948. With the new planes came a new logo, and the plan was go with a constellation theme. The centaur, representative of Sagittarius, was a logical choice because it suggested movement, strength, and somewhat resembled the farohar, a Parsi heavenly symbol featuring a winged man, like a guardian angel. The Parsis are a Zoroastrian sect of the Subcontinent -- of which Air-India's founding family, the Tatas, were members -- and their farohar is a sign of good luck. Furthermore, incarnation of the Sagittarius brings forth, in the mind of many Indians, images of the master archer Arjuna from the mythological epic Mahabharata. Whatever the exact reasoning, the emblem was adopted and has remained ever since.

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I've always contended that any meditation on air travel is, at heart, a meditation on culture, and there's a great example.

Thanks to Mr. Vikram Doctor, writing from Mumbai, for his expertise on that one. He, like many of you, have been working diligently -- harder than me, that's for sure -- to solve a few of the industry's more mysterious liveries and identities.

Up next is Indonesia's national carrier, Garuda. The airline hails from the planet's most populous Muslim nation, but has named itself in honor of a Hindu deity. There's the stylized Garuda himself up on the tail fin. Is this not culturally incorrect?

"Well," explains a reader, "Garuda is essentially an eagle. Carriers use bird motifs of many different kinds. Garuda's Garuda is no less fitting than the crane is for Lufthansa."

Perhaps more fitting. After all, "Garuda is the king of the birds," so a Google search reveals. "He mocks the wind with the speed of his flight." The robust Garuda joins Ganesha and Hanuman, neither of whom make passable names for airlines, to complete Hinduism's animal-god trinity. It's also worth noting that the airline Garuda got its start on Indonesia's most famous tourist island, Bali, which is a predominantly Hindu place. (Actually it's an amalgam of Hindu, Buddhist, and local indigenous beliefs, as described in this space several months ago.)

Then again, in Southeast Asia, certain words born from Sanskrit are not always considered of Hindu orientation. Take the word for lion, "singh." It lends itself to Singapore, "the Lion City," and the well-known Singha lager of Thailand. Thus, Garuda is just Garuda: a cool, mean-ass bird, culturally relevant if you want him to be.

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Several e-mailers also submitted theories as to why an Icelandic airline would choose the moniker Air Atlanta. Reykjavik's Air Atlanta is one of the world's largest so-called ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance) providers -- a lessor of widebody aircraft, mostly 747s, to carriers in need of temporary extra capacity. Air Atlanta staff did not respond to requests for clarification, but readers gave it a shot:

"Possibly Air Atlanta is merely trying to identify with the North Atlantic," voices Ken Kenwell. "Atlanta, Atlantic?"

I suppose, but why not "North Atlantic?" Icelandair is already taken, but how about "Saga International" or "Lava Airways"? Better yet, what about "Air Valkyrie," which would also lend itself to some great logo ideas, such as a spear-toting Norse woman atop a winged horse. Flight attendants and pilots could wear Viking hats, just like Flava Flav.

It could be worse. A friend of mine worked as a pilot in Azerbaijan for a time. That nation's national carrier is called Azal, which Mike insists is pronounced "Asshole."

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"I'd been flying there for a week, " he says, "before I realized that the controllers weren't just being rude."

Another unsolved puzzle was that of Midwest Airlines' logo/tail design. There's a hint of art deco, maybe, in that overwrought madness, but surely it has to mean something. It's too complicated, too ornate, to merely be what it appears to be -- a cheddar cheese harp.

Many believe the trademark is taken from the glass and steel architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum's new Quadracci Pavilion. Not so, claims Jim Marx, Midwest Airlines' art director, on the phone from Milwaukee. "It's more complicated than that." As I assumed, though I wasn't quite prepared for Marx's deconstruction:

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"What we have are two wings," he explains, "with the letter M cradled between them. On the foreground wing you see 16 'energy lines,' as we called them, which are a testament to our company's enthusiasm. Behind it, the more solid wing is meant to echo our strength and durability. In the center rests the M, brushed by a 'touch line' that emphasizes Midwest's attention to customer care."

Marx says the full Midwest Airlines identity, developed in cooperation with noted designer Roger Van den Bergh (additionally responsible for Continental's latest look), took more than 15 months to fine-tune. Presumably that was one month to concoct the actual design, and 14 months to psychoanalyze it.

"We realize people think it's the Quadracci," Marx adds. "That wasn't intentional, but we don't mind the association. It's a beautiful place."

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Nothing against the pavilion, but surely there's something else in Milwaukee or the region more eminently recognizable. If it were up to me, and since we're working with aluminum, I'd opt for one of those "every plane is different" serials, à la Frontier Airlines, each celebrating a different Midwestern brewery. Imagine winging to Wisconsin in a giant can of Schlitz.

Frontier doesn't use beer; it uses animals. The tails of Frontier's 50-strong fleet of Airbuses display any number of wildlife scenes, depicting animals and birds native to North America, from mallards to hares to the blue crowned conure. It's a nice touch, though I've always begrudged the airline for having usurped the name of the original Frontier Airlines, acquired by Continental in 1987.

The new Frontier uses its great outdoors theme as an all-around marketing tool. "A Whole Different Animal," is the airline's clever catch phrase, which brings us to yet another -- and the last, I promise -- facet of air carrier identity: the slogan.

Like logos and liveries, a slogan needn't be particularly ingenious to be successful, but the right combo of sentiment and lyric rhythm go a long way. We've heard some classics. United scored big with the touchy-feely warmth of "Fly the Friendly Skies," while Pan Am's "The World's Most Experienced Airline" pretty much said it all. KLM's "The Reliable Dutch Airline" excelled in its plainspoken modesty, while Braniff International's "Coming Through With Flying Colors" was another gem. Probably the most image-conscious airline of all time, Braniff was famous for dousing its jetliners in a wide array of colors -- including a 727 handpainted by Alexander Calder for the 1976 Bicentennial -- giving the slogan a wonderful and effective double meaning.

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Although they make up an integral part of the branding process, mottos seem to come and go these days with even greater rapidity than paint schemes. Among the more unfortunate recent campaigns is that of Delta Air Lines, whose "Delta Is Ready When You Are" should have been an enduring standard, but was nixed for the gross vapidity of "Good Goes Around," which sounds like the pitch for a diet cola.

Bad, but not the worst. That distinction is owed to Northwest, for its mid-1990s campaign, "Some People Just Know How to Fly." Employed by one of Northwest's commuter affiliates at the time, I can attest to widespread, mocking disdain for this bizarre tag, expressed both by passengers and crews. Rule No. 1: Never rely on a saying whose meaning can be spun 180 degrees by a simple change of intonation. During delays, pilots could get a planeload of passengers cackling in unison through the subtlest sarcastic tweaking of the word "know."

Eastern once billed itself "The Wings of Man," which was definitely over the top, as is British Airways' use of "The World's Favourite Airline." I suppose B.A. was under pressure to devise something with one of those cute British spellings that so charm Americans (the airline serves more U.S. destinations than any of its European competitors), but technically it's the world's 12th favourite airline.

No word if Garuda has ever tried its luck with "King of the Birds," or "We Mock the Wind."

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In the meantime, as if you need to be reminded, You Are Now Free to Move About the Country. It's not clear if the "ding" is formally part of the Southwest ballyhoo, but the rest of it, along with its secondary device, "A Symbol of Freedom," remains a brilliant evocation of the discount carrier's key to success: affordable fares for everybody. This egalitarian spirit has been copied by AirAsia, the rising low-cost star of Malaysia, where "Now Everyone Can Fly."

The trouble is, after hearing it for the 5,000th time, Southwest's signature chime is grating enough to send any sensible person scurrying back to Delta or United.

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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.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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