Ask the pilot

Who cares what planes look like? I do! Why do they have to look so ugly and boring?

Published August 29, 2008 10:53AM (EDT)

This column was slated to run in last week's slot, sidetracked at the last minute by the plane crash in Spain. Apologies to those of you hoping for something newsier -- oh gawd, not another rant about liveries and aesthetics! -- but hey, it's a holiday weekend and I'm trying to keep it light.

We begin with a quote: "Who cares what it looks like?"

That was the sentiment of a certain David W in Salon's letters section two weeks ago, responding to my opinion that the goliath new Airbus, the A380, is possibly the ugliest commercial jetliner ever built.

"I spend my time inside the aircraft and not outside," David continues. "I don't care what the A380 looks like; if it's big then maybe passengers will have more room and the economy class nightmare won't be so bad."

True, perhaps, on that latter point, but I'm having a hard time with the premise. I passionately submit that it does, absolutely, matter what the airplane looks like. Call me a biased, old-fashioned romantic (I'm guilty on all three counts), but I like to think of the jetliner as something loftier -- both literally and figuratively -- than a mere vehicle, and thus deserving of the same aesthetic seriousness bestowed across a wide range of industrial design. Obviously this is nothing specific to aviation, but a point that speaks to design in general: Do we not care what our bridges and skyscrapers look like, functionality aside? Of course we do.

If you ask me, David's opinion is symptomatic of the public's all-but-vanished appreciation for air travel. Flying has become so routine, and so uncomfortable, that few people stop to consider the impressiveness of soaring thousands of feet over the ocean, at hundreds of miles per hour, in a machine that cost tens of millions of dollars ... in nearly absolute safety, to boot. So what, the thinking goes. Just get me there quickly (and cheaply).

Then again, we shouldn't be too hard on David, considering not only the beastliness of the A380's silhouette but the steps most airlines have been taking to ensure that all of their jetliners appear as unattractive as possible. In a lot of ways, a plane is only as attractive as the paint job applied to it, and the state of airline liveries has been devolving ever more rapidly. One by one, it seems, the industry's handsomest looks are being usurped by remakes that are flashy, gimmicky or just plain vulgar.

Consider the latest at US Airways. Out went the smoky gray, clever red accenting and elegant typeface. In, a spiritless, blue and white base with a childish red stripe. (The design was meant to celebrate the 2005 merger between US Airways and America West. The flag and font are US Airways; the lightly sprayed fuselage jags are America West. Couldn't they just have given every employee a watch? It smacks of down-market and cheap -- an affiliation no airline should want.)

Then we have the ruin of Air India. The sexy tail swoosh and Taj Mahal-ian window frames have become this manic mess. Like so many schemes of late, it attempts too much, trying to be at once understated and distinctive. In the end, it's just sloppy.

Or, have a gander at the brand-new EgyptAir. Not that the scheme it replaces was anything special, but here is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with airline branding so far in the 21st century. Truly awful, it looks like the uniform for an arena football team.

Colombia's national carrier is one of the oldest airlines in existence. But what, exactly, is evoked by this? Nothing, best anybody can tell, beyond the possible self-satisfaction of the artists. And don't get me started on AeroMexico, which has adopted that lowest common denominator of brand identity, the "generic meaningless swoosh thing."

That was a term coined by Amanda Collier, a graphic design veteran quoted in one of this column's earlier discussions of airline color schemes. According to Collier, "the GMST is what happens when any corporation gathers senior management, their internal creative department, and a design agency in order to develop a new logo. 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, and shit out variations on a motion theme until everyone gets tired of arguing about it."

In the end, too many people are left asking the question they should never be asking: "What airline is that?" I hate to say it, but in their attempts to seem modern and progressive, carriers have been undermining, and even outright destroying, their own brand identities. In some cases, globally recognized icons were thrown aside and replaced by crude knockoffs. It's hard to say which is the most offensive example, but I'll point to two:

First and foremost was the retiring of the Japan Airlines crane emblem. This timeless classic -- the bird gracefully lifting its wings into the suggestion of a rising sun -- became this truncated glob (or, if you will, the "rising splotch").

Almost as tragic was the bastardization of Northwest's "NW" compass logo. It was an N; it was a W; it was a compass pointing toward the northwest. It was all of those things, and perhaps the single best trademark ever created by Landor Associates. The new version is neither an N nor a W. It's just an arrow sticking out of a circle.

Which is all right, I suppose, given that Northwest's planes will soon be sporting the red and blue widget of Delta, whose newest presentation (Delta's fourth revision in 10 years) is a bit ... um ... er ... uh ... yawn.

Anyway, getting back to what started this whole conversation, the only thing worse than an ugly paint job is an ugly paint job and an ugly airplane. Fortunately none of those operators above has any A380s on order, sparing us, for the moment, a worst-of-both-worlds scenario.

Most latter-day planes aren't ugly so much as boring. There's a generic sameness to standard, twin-engine jetliners that makes them almost indistinguishable. My fondness for the 747 aside, I'm known to wax nostalgic over the Gothic lines of the 727 or the sleekness of the Sud-Est Caravelle, a French airliner of the '60s. There seems to be a conventional wisdom that modern planes, by comparison, are boring because they have to be -- that there's something about aerodynamics and fuel economy that necessitates a blasé profile. "Air does not yield to style," in the words of an Airbus engineer.

I'm not buying it, and I submit there are enough state-of-the-art examples of great-looking planes to prove me right: the 777, the Embraer ERJ-145, even Airbus' own A340. Planes are ugly or generic because their designers didn't make the effort to craft them otherwise.

Leaving the A380 alone for a minute, let's look at some of my other least favorite airliner designs, both new and old, big and small.

  • The Lockheed Constellation

    Help me out with this. For airplane buffs, talking trash about the Constellation is among the most grievous sins possible. Rarely is the vaguest slight directed at this legendary four-motor propliner of the '40s and '50s. But I just don't get it. It started with my first and only sighting of the venerable Connie, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1980. As the plane, ancient even 28 years ago, taxied past me, it appeared misshapen, wobbly, crawling along like an injured mantis. (The one I saw, a Dominican freighter registered HI-328, is the identical aircraft shown in the link above, photographed shortly before it crashed.) Ah, but maybe that's it. The Connie, like some newer craft (the 767-300, for example), is victimized by a fish-out-of-water complex. On the ground, it sits awkwardly, uncomfortably nose-high. Only when aloft does its grace become apparent. I think.

  • The McDonnell Douglas DC-10

    You may have heard that the Boeing 777 was the first airliner to be designed entirely by computer. What you probably didn't know was that the DC-10 was the first to be designed with crayons and a wooden ruler. The problem revolves mostly around the tail. Although the DC-10 wasn't the first jet to have three engines, the builders had no idea what to do with the middle one. Hurrying to outpace their main competitor, the Lockheed L-1011, they flipped a coin and decided to wedge it through the vertical stabilizer. Lockheed took its time and developed a beauty; Douglas botched it.

  • The Britten-Norman Trislander

    Somewhere in the U.K., a group of precocious fifth graders saw pictures of the DC-10. Grabbing up scraps of plywood and lawn mower parts they shouted, "We can do worse!" A few days later they unveiled the Trislander, which promptly won fourth prize in the school's show-and- tell science contest. You have to admit, the idea of a three-engine, piston-powered commuter plane is kind of cool. Or not.

  • The Airbus A320

    The A320 was made because not enough people thought air travel was boring. Somebody once wrote -- wait, it was me -- that the plane looked like it popped out from an Airbus vending machine, or hatched from an egg laid by an A380. The A320 has three equally inelegant siblings -- the A318, A319 and A321 -- that are essentially the A320 baseline, plus or minus a fuselage plug. This bland foursome has been Airbus' biggest seller, with more than 3,000 built, doing all they can to reinforce the notion that, yes, flying is tedious and unexciting.

  • The CASA C-212 Aviocar

    Here's the answer to why the Spanish aerospace industry is second in global prominence only to its automobile industry. Jealous on both counts, Spain invented the "Aviocar." Wait, the Spanish are major partners in the Airbus consortium too. No wonder.

  • The VFW (Fokker) 614

    Nobody knows what this plane, one of the few German commercial aircraft ventures, is supposed to be, exactly. Are the engines really on top of the wings, or was the plane built upside-down around them? In either case, why? We're told it has something to do with ground clearance, but some of us theorize the engineers were strung out on schnapps. The engines-on-top concept had the added bonus of reducing the plane's noise footprint on the ground, while making it as loud as possible in the cabin.

And so on. I know, there are plenty more worthy candidates, but let's just drop it.

One final point about the A380: I agree that an airplane's design, no different from that bridge or skyscraper, speaks to its era, and it's important to temper one's judgment with context. This does not apply to the A380, a plane whose ungainliness outdistances that of its contemporaries and will, I assure you, prove timeless. It's ugly now and will continue to be ugly 40 years from now.

Meanwhile, I'm sorry if I take this stuff too seriously. In my defense, I'm hardly alone, as the many thousands of visitors to, whose archives I've raided to illustrate this article, will passionately attest.

I remember the time Airbus sent me a promo package that included a poster-size calendar, each month celebrated with photos from its aircraft line. They were glam shots -- sexily angled pics of landing gear; views of the tail; a soft-focus picture of a turbofan. Yes, you see this with cars and motorcycles too, and maybe guns as well -- the sexualization of mechanical objects. Unfortunately, respect for the modern aircraft has been unable to make it past this sort of macho fetishizing. I've posited this before, but what aviation needs is some crossover cred. The Concorde came close, melding the cold mathematics of the left brain with the poetry of the right, but still, you won't find framed lithographs of the Concorde in the lofts of SoHo or the brownstones on Beacon Hill, hanging alongside romanticized images of the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. And I'm still waiting for that 10-part Ken Burns documentary on the history of commercial aviation.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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