What Matters in an Aircraft Livery? Not Much.


There is rarely a hotter topic in airline dork discussion circles than an airline’s livery. The livery is — in normal human terms — the airline’s paint job, and the term comes from the livery, or uniform, that servants used to wear. Fans of Downton Abbey know this well from the footmen’s livery, but I have absolutely no idea how this evolved into the aircraft that gets painted. I’m sure many of you know the answer.

When it comes to an airline’s livery, there is never a shortage of opinions, and livery changes are often met with a skeptical eye. No, that’s being generous. People tend to wildly hate new liveries when they first come out, and then opinions tend to soften… but not always. Every time a new livery comes out, I end up shaking my head, wondering why so much effort goes into this whole process. I find much of it to be a waste.

The whole cycle began again last week when Icelandair rolled out its newest colors. The backlash was swift and occasionally brutal. Some of the kinder comments were along the lines of “I think Icelandair’s old livery is more visually interesting and also still looks modern” or “the overall design of the delivery looks like it was picked out of a catalog sent to European airlines.” And keep in mind that these come from blogs. Try looking at Twitter and you’ll find some less charitable reviews.

But why? And why does it even matter? I understand some of the criticism here from the perspective of an avgeek. I want to see airplanes that look new and different, but that’s just because I want to selfishly have something cool to watch fly overhead while I’m eating my Double Double at In-N-Out. But in the end, if an airline gets the basics right, that’s all that matters.

When it comes to Icelandair, frankly, I’ve always been a fan of their pre-2006 livery.

Oh sure, the font could be larger and more current, but I always thought it was a simple but elegant livery that got the point across. Airlines don’t need anything overly complicated, though it’s always so tempting to try. And sometimes it is a success.

Think about the airlines of the Pacific, including Air Tahiti Nui, Fiji Airways, and Hawaiian. Their liveries are beautiful representations of the local culture, and it fits with the brand perfectly in all three cases. Did it need to be so complex? Of course not. But these are lookers and they get notice wherever they go. I don’t know if it gets one more person to fly to visit the islands, but it does create pride for the locals that see these aircraft around the world. There is something to be said for that effort.

The problem is… most airlines don’t end up with something like that. Instead, they end up twisting themselves into knots creating a story behind the livery and it ends up being lost on nearly everyone who sees it. Take American, for example, and it’s ugly flag tail. There are a remarkable number of colors used in all sorts of shading to get that tail design. I would argue that the tail should have the eagle logo on it instead, but even if you want the flag, there are far simpler ways to do it that will help save money and time on painting aircraft. Nobody cares how intricate this is when all they want is for their plane to leave on time and get to the destination safely.

Another example is Frontier.

What on Earth is even happening here? Yes, you have the iconic animals on the tail. When that used to be it, well, this was a good livery. But now you have the weird blue arrow that is supposed to hearken back to the original Frontier’s livery… though I can’t imagine anyone knows that or cares. You have the website on the rear fuselage and the name on the nose. Oh, and you have the Icelandair-esque F logo in the billboard title. Oh, and then the engines are green but with a blue accent on the back. There may be a story here, but it is lost in the shuffle.

Airlines also need to select something that supports the brand promise while not looking too cheap or unsafe. One of my favorites? It’s probably not what you’d expect.

There are only two colors in Spirit’s paint job, and it very clearly says “I am Spirit. I am a taxi.” That is effectively the brand promise. We want to be a cheap and reliable mode of transport. Great.

Some airlines try to get too cutesy. For example, remember this?

ValuJet’s promise was cheap transportation, but it looked like a mickey mouse operation that didn’t inspire confidence in any way. It quite literally looked like someone just drew this thing on the side of the airplane. The irony is that this did actually match the airline quite well, considering how many operational problems it had, ultimately ending in the tragic accident in the Everglades. Even though it may have been a true representation, no airline should want to project that image. The right image is one that’s clean, safe, current, and competent. ValuJet missed that mark.

The problem is that even when airlines have something good, there’s always someone arguing that the brand needs a change or at the very least a refresh. I don’t mind brand refreshes nearly as much, because sometimes it does need to happen. United, for example, did a great job in converting the now dated-looking Continental livery into the new United one with more of a light blue and no gold. You can argue whether the globe should still be there or not, but at least in this case, the logo didn’t have to change significantly. That makes it a lot easier to update new assets while making old assets less important to replace quickly.

In the case of Icelandair, it did its own refresh in 2006 with this…

Icelandair got rid of the cheatline over the windows, a look that fell out of fashion years ago and looks dated, despite my love of it. Instead, Icelandair moved the line down and painted the bottom blue to give it some differentiation. The logo itself didn’t change, but it was turned yellow and given a shine, making it more complex and giving it depth. The airline also painted the engines yellow, giving a warm pop in the cold, white, landscape of Iceland.

And this was fine. I personally don’t like the added depth in logos, because it’s often lost anyway, but this looked professional, recognizable, and clean. That works.

Now, Icelandair has gone in a somewhat different direction with this…

Image via Icelandair

What has changed? Well, most notably the logo has done a 180. It is now a flat white, effectively the inverse of the old blue logo, and worlds away from the complexity of the yellow… although still the same basic design. The airline has also updated the font and blown it up into billboard titles on the fuselage, making it much more readable. Finally, it changed the pop of color from the yellow engines and logo to instead be on a stripe down the front of the tail with different colors.

In this photo, you see a crisp sky blue, or as Icelandair describes it, “the Icelandic summer sky that’s filled with light.” Behind that is magenta which “signifies the collective creative power of Iceland, with just a hint of sunrise.” In the back is golden yellow which “is the sun reflecting off waterfalls, glaciers, and even simmering magma.” Stay tuned for some other overly-developed description for boreal blue and green to join the tails for a total of five.

As for the livery itself, it’s perfectly fine by me. The familiarity of the logo is good and gives consistency. The aircraft looks clean and retains a nice pop of color. But would I have been just as happy if the airline simply blew up the old titles into a billboard and gave the tail a white logo? Yup.

The thing is, Icelandair clearly wanted to create a lengthy and unnecessary backstory. It helps to sell the image by giving it a cohesive rationale, but customers don’t care. Clean, safe, current, and competent is what matters. Icelandair had that before — though you could argue it needed a few tweaks to keep it current — and it has it now. It works either way.

I’ve undoubtedly gravely offended every brand expert (actual or self-described) with this post, and that’s fine. This is just one opinion among many, and I’m sure I’ll hear all about that in the comments….

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39 comments on “What Matters in an Aircraft Livery? Not Much.

  1. Great backstory doesn’t make up for an uninspiring livery, and the whole ‘slash of color down the tail onto the fuselage’ is so overdone by this point that it’s pretty much the opposite of ‘innovative.’ The logo going to 2D white just drags this one down even more. But I agree that 99.9% of customers probably won’t care as long as their flight is on time.

  2. It’s all marketing & brand awareness. Marketing 101 plane & simple. Although I do like the JetBlue tail.

  3. The AvGeeks are going to come out en force on this one to debate liveries.

    In terms of the new Icelandair livery, it’s kind of a non-event similar to the new Lufthansa livery which was the ultimate non-event. While I liked the 2006 livery, I don’t feel like the new livery’s radically different. Beyond the promotional liveries airlines occasionally use (UA’s Star Wars, SW’s Lone Star and Braniff’s Calder), I think there’s a certain class to some of the great liveries of the 80s and 90s. You really can’t top the old Widget at DL or the British Airways Landor livery, which to this day remains one of the classiest out there. I mean, it’s just so… British. Also, once you learn that NW’s livery was also by Landor Associates, you start to think they really knew what they were doing.

    But in terms of best of all time – the original America West (something about that burgundy and grey), PSA (the smile was brilliant), Eastern (so basic and yet so beautiful) and Canadian Airlines. Out of all the new liveries out there, I think Air Canada really nailed it. It’s basic, does the job and is pleasing to the eye.

    1. But I don’t think different colors of paint are meaningfully more heavy than others. You’ll save a small bit of cost in paint and labor when it comes to repainting but I bet it’s not a big difference.

      1. Where it probably matters more is hot climates. Reportedly one of the reasons for a new livery after the merger of US Airways and America West is that the very dark blue (it’s wasn’t black, but close) US Airways livery was tough to keep cool during the summer in Phoenix, where the temperature pretty easily exceeds 110°F.

        1. That’s what I was thinking. Just like a black car in the sun (and planes are rarely parked close enough to the terminal to get much shade/shadows on the hottest parts of sunny days), a darkly painted plane must really heat up.

          I know I’ve been on many flights in the summer where the flight attendants asked everyone to open the AC vents to full and close the window shades before disembarking in order to try to keep the plane from getting too hot before the next flight.

  4. Agree with almost everything said here and in the comments so far. One thing though… When you say “The thing is, Icelandair clearly wanted to create a lengthy and unnecessary backstory. It helps to sell the image by giving it a cohesive rationale, but customers don’t care. ”

    I think what that should read is, “Clearly, Icelandair’s branding consultants sold Icelandair on the need for a lengthy backstory to convey the brand values and brand iconography to consumers, linking the brand to its origins as a business and rooted in the culture of the country”. Or words to that effect. The main reason for the branding consultancy to do this is to (a) be able to write considerably more hours needed to create this story, and the rationale for it, and (b) justify the considerable cost they charged for it.

    I remember when BA rebranded and the whole world got to read BA’s justification: ’It goes much deeper than the paint on the aircraft or the ink on our publications. It is the physical manifestation of a fundamental review of our mission, our values and our corporate goals.”

    Yes it is unnecessary. Consumers may even have an opinion, but will not change their purchase behavior based on a paint job or logo. Ultimately, trust, price, convenience and habit are the biggest drivers. Trust me… I am a consultant ;-)

  5. Great write up. I think that’s the thing about liveries, it’s such an opinionated topic, but it’s fun to discuss. For Icelandair specifically, I’m not a fan of this livery, it feels so plain, their previous one I feel was better. Though I still think Lufthansa ditching their yellow was crazy. Not just because it made their livery have less of a pop, but because that particular shade of yellow was theirs and part of their band. And while the current British Airways livery is fine, I really like the Landor better. Just such an elegant livery.

    Out of the US3, the only one I like is Delta. Wavy Gravy was great, but making the widget a more integral part of their livery again I felt was a good move. Though my one critique would be I wish the widget was orientated as it was before, but it’s fine. With AA, every time I think I’ve gotten used to it, I watch something like Home Alone and I ask myself why. That previous livery was so iconic. Paint the new planes gray since you can’t do polished metal and leave the rest alone. Or, if you insist of getting rid of their cheatlines, leave the AA on the tail. With United, I am not a fan of their livery at all. I’m happy for the Continental employees that feel like they still have something from their airline, but it just feels lazily mashed together. Though I know I’m biased because the Saul Bass United livery from the 80’s is one of my absolute favorites. I will say a great example of taking 2 airlines and combining them together would be the livery that US Airways used after the America West merger. Though I actually prefer both individual liveries right before their merger. The livery was a good look that incorporated both airlines.

    The final TWA livery was amazing. It looked very updated and professional. The globe was prominent in the design and I feel like they nailed it. I completely agree with you on Air Tahiti Nui, Fiji Airways, and especially Hawaiian. I would also add WestJet and Air Canada to the list of updated liveries that work well and look great.

    1. Pilotaaron1 – I too am not a fan of the decision to keep the globe at the combined United/Continental, but for me it was less about the look than it was about the symbolism. This was a clear signal to employees that it was all about Continental. I would have preferred something new entirely, or maybe something that stuck more with United and the tulip. What Delta did was good. There was no question it was Delta going forward, but there were some nods in the livery to Northwest to reflect the heritage. I think Delta did an excellent job. But for United, the message should have been, “we are United” and it wasn’t. Employees really struggled with the integration for many, many years. I think at this point, they’ve gotten beyond the point where livery symbolism matters, but I think it was a big mistake early on because of the message it sent to employees.

      1. Slight correction: The new Delta logo came out in 2007. The merger with NW was announced in 2008. The pointing of the arrow/widget was a coincidence and not intentional.

        United’s pre-merger marketing firm Pentagram, who produced the United logo with the slanted T and the rising tulip livery, did put together a post-merger proposal for updated branding, but it was not accepted by the new management.

    2. The new American livery came just before the merger with US Airways. One thing that happened not long after the merger was a question came down from Parker to employees about the livery. The options were to keep the new livery as is, or replace the flag-thing on the tail with the old AA logo (the fuselage would have remained the same), and employees voted to keep the new livery without changes. If it were me, I would have put the eagle symbol that’s at the front of the fuselage on the tail instead.

    3. 2010 was a fun time for United aircraft. You could see something like 3 different United liveries in a varying degrees of how faded they were, plus the old Continental one as well.

      The livery itself might not really matter, but large amounts of fading or peeling paint looks bad no matter what color it is.

  6. Logo simplification (decluttering) by moving to 2D is a design trend, unfortunately, to make the logo easy to recognize on the much smaller mobile phone screens. In some cases, it works (e.g., Pepsi, McDonald’s, Delta), in others it makes it flat or indistinguishable (e.g., Taco Bell, Lufthansa). For Icelandair to move to a 2D logo is understandable, as is making the name billboard size. But they could have done so and kept the rest of the classy, elegant, nordic look (which also differentiated it from other completely white fuselage liveries). The new splash of colors on the tail are cold (which maybe is OK for Iceland), and look like they belong in a box of crayons. Did they consider using colors to reflect the colors of the flag of Iceland?

    Perhaps this new look will change quickly (remember the BA World Tails, or Delta’s Ron Allen’s look and Delta’s flowing flag look.) If not, as Cranky says, every day, non-geek, travelers won’t end up caring much.

  7. Isn’t that pre-1996 Iceland air livery? I recall flying them in 2000 and they had introduced the yellow by then.

      1. I flew Icelandair in 2000 on two 757’s. One with the yellow F and one with the blue one. During that same trip I also flew on two 737’s that had the blue Fs. BOS-KEF-CDG-KEF-BOS

  8. Cranky:

    There are three things an airline needs in a livery:

    1) Identification — People need to know who they are. Hiding a name or an overly complex livery confuses peoples awareness of an airline. That’s why I never liked the Saul Bass U on United. Just a little too cutsie.

    2) Image – What’s an airline stand for?

    3) Distinction — How does an airline stand out from its peers?

    My personal favorite livery of all time was the Delta “flag livery” with the tail that had 21 colors. I admit, that was a nightmare to maintain, but it exuded class and you knew the way that plane was configured it was Delta, it was a US Carrier and it implied a sense of wonder and sophistication that spread throughout the airline.

    The worst I ever saw was United’s battleship gray livery. It was almost as if they were hiding somewhere which, they kinda were. Put that plane in a line-up with KC-135 tankers and you couldn’t tell the military from the civilian airplanes. United’s Continental Adaptive was rather cool and clearly communicated United’s world view. It was simple and elegant and is replaced by something that actually looks clumsy.

    Spirit’s look alone is enough to keep me off it. By contrast, I love the simplicity and consistency of Lufthansa, JAL and even ANA. All three cry out sophistication, business carrier and passenger care.

    1. If you really wanted to hide a United battleship grey airplane, park it among the KC-10s, not the KC-135s. Especially if it was a United DC-10.

  9. I agree with you about Spirit’s logo. Nothing exciting, but it does project their brand quite well. In terms of the big airlines in the mainland USA, there aren’t a lot of great looks.

    AA – The flag on the tail is still hideous to me and the fact that it takes many colors of paint to make than monstrosity just makes it worse. The old AA logo would have been perfect for small devices like phones.
    Delta – It’s simple and it works. I liked colors in motion, but not the Ron Allen livery. But Delta should always have a widget on its tail.At least when Delta went from colors in motion to the current livery, they used fewer paint colors.
    United – Not a fan of the globe and knowing that it replaced not one but two classic Saul Bass logos (the Continental meatball and the United tulip) makes it worse.
    Southwest – I like your description of Hot Dog on a Stick. It’s a mishmash of bright colors.
    Alaska – I prefer the previous rendition of the livery. It looks like it was a simplification.
    JetBlue – It’s blue! It’s fine.

    1. Alaska’s current (2016) rendering of the Eskimo on the tail was explicitly a simplification, specifically because the new rendition displays better on mobile devices.

      Alaska and Hawaiian are by far my favorite of the US airline liveries; they each convey a specific place (from the names of the airlines) beautifully. No other US airline has an option to do something like that, though, since no others are named for states that have such distinct identities from the other 48, even if Alaska the state hasn’t been a majority of Alaska Airlines’ business for a long time.

  10. You really missed the mark on the Frontier comments Brett.

    The stylized ‘F’ is the most valuable hold over from the Saul Bass era logo that was introduced in 1978 by Frontier (and see his similar work with United’s tulip and Continental’ meatball).

    While no one will confuse the current Frontier to the fabulous mountain-west airline that plied from the Denver hub until August 1986, reacquiring the trademark to the ‘F’ and using it was an ode to the nearly all-original Frontier management that came back together, used a lot of their own money, and rebirthed Frontier in 2004.

    By the way it was a local Denver ad agency that gave the founders the idea of the animals and the first version scripted Frontier scheme.

  11. Indeed a favorite topic for all avgeeks and even some non-avgeek airline staff. You will get as many opinions as there are discussion entries.
    Agreeing on the fact that most new livery tend to grow after some time – yet there are so many where one thinks, a 10-year old could have come up with something better than those expensive brand consultants. At least, the changes are keeping the game alive.

  12. My first comment is a statement of truth: “There’s no accounting for taste.” One’s preferences in food, movies, sports, art, music, women, men, airline liveries, etc. are completely subjective. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to taste.

    With the above in mind, I tend to agree with the overall premise that there’s a tendency on the part of companies to overthink their branding.

    Some opinions (which are only that): I found American’s old livery to be too choppy, with the patchwork of painted plastic (er, composites) and polished metal. I like the new look much better, but agree the tail is overdone. United’s choice to adopt the former Continental livery was practical. It saved a lot of painting, and United’s liveries were a mish-mash at the time. And what’s wrong with using a globe as branding for an internationally focused airline? As for Delta’s, it’s nice, but that’s all that can be said for it. On the other hand, does a livery really need to be extraordinary? I liked Southwest’s old blue livery better than the current one. I’ll leave it at that.

    My burning question is if Spirit will adopt Hughes Airwest’s old slogan “Top Banana in the Sky”?

    1. I’m with you on the globe. I actually quite like it; as you say, seems like a perfect logo for a global airline (which United is in a way that pre-merger Continental was not!). But I also have little baggage from any older Continental liveries or logos and have no attachment to the United tulip. My main attachment to United/Continental is from moving to northern Ohio for college when Cleveland was a busy Continental hub, the globe logo was everywhere, and Continental’s close US partner was Northwest.

    1. There are Disney- and Hello Kitty-themed planes, but it seems like most of the cartoon/media liveried planes out there are the result of pre-existing licensing/branding agreements that fit more strategic purposes between the airline and the content owner(s) than mere “eyeballs-for-money” trades.

      I’m not sure if the (potential) revenue from the use of the plane of the billboard is all that much, as compared to the (very small, but very impactful) risk of your brand being showing next to dead bodies in the Everglades if the airline has an issue. I realize that crashes are far, far less likely and frequent than they were 20 or even 10 years ago, but imagine the criticism and stock market hit if (for example) the ValuJet Flight 592 had been painted in a livery to promote Pepsi or Charmin.

  13. I think it’s ironic that most passengers will never see the exterior. They go from the departure lounge, through the loading bridge and then press on to find their seats they have no chance to view the lovely livery.

  14. Doug Parker said explicitly when considering what to do with the AA livery post-merger that liveries are mostly for the employees (so he gave the employees a vote about which tail to use, saying he didn’t really care what marketing and/or the graphic designers think because it just doesn’t matter much from a marketing point of view). I don’t doubt that.

    I imagine the marketing importance of livery is largely limited to passengers (ie potential future customers) seeing an airplane and saying “hey, that airline flies here” and maybe remembering that next time booking a flight. That would be much more important for small airlines or in outstations than in places where an airline is a well-known presence, I’d think.

    1. Agreed on both points.

      Take this with a grain of salt, as I haven’t worked in aviation, and I realize that this may sound a little like consulting/marketing speak, but please hear me out…

      To combine your two points, I’d also argue that a very unique / pretty livery helps to give at least a few prospective and current employees of smaller/ULCC/upstart airlines (even larger ones that want to act/feel like underdogs) a sense of company culture and community, or at least a quick first impression of what the company (which, for some startup airlines, prospective employees and customers have, by definition, sometimes never heard of before) might stand for.

      As a hypothetical example outside of aviation… Imagine if a person interviews for three office/corporate jobs with companies they’ve never heard of, with little or no HR/culture/company info. The person sees that company A has logo/colors and office paint scheme that were tasteful yet mostly muted/off-white/non-memorable, while company B has more vibrant logo/colors and office paint scheme, and company C has a more garish/extreme color scheme. That person would probably immediately and perhaps subconsciously draw conclusions about each company, especially the culture and intangibles of each company, regardless of any marketing/HR speak.

      I know I would be making judgments about each of those companies the second I saw their colors, just as I draw conclusions about brands and companies all the time that way.

      In that sense, I agree with Cranky’s assessment of Spirit’s livery, in terms of the way that it instantly creates a first impression. While I personally don’t care for the yellow/black colors myself (or the airline, for that matter), Spirit’s colors and livery are quite good. They very clearly associate it with the classic, no-frills “big city taxi cab”/”basic transportation” look, even if many of its younger customers may have only seen yellow cabs in movies.

  15. I agree about planes being flying billboards, I’m really surprised it isn’t more common.

    My favorite (and probably only that I can remember) special livery experience was flying the New York Jet’s Green JetBlue plane back in 2012 on a flight out of New York during the Super Bowl while the Giants were beating the New England Patriates, there was something ironic watching the big game on the DirecTV while on the plane branded for New Jersey’s other team. We had started our trip with a free beer in Terminal 5 that JetBlue was offering everyone.

  16. Airline marketing design doesn’t matter to me although a few standout such as Condor. I would be curious if a poll was run here which design would rank the worst and which one the best. For me it’s get me there in comfort, on-time and with polite and professional service.

  17. One thing I saw in several complaints about the new Icelandair livery was that, like Lufthansa, they removed the yellow color. However as can be seen from the photos in this article, Icelandair’s association with the color doesn’t go back nearly as far as Lufthansa. But what did jump out at me about their old pre-2006 livery was how similar it looks to Air China with the twin blue cheatline.

    Can we petition Icelandair to just make Hekla Aurora their standard livery?

  18. My big complaint is that literally every new livery these days is blue. Lufthansa? Blue. SAS? Blue. United? Blue. And now Icelandair. I get it, planes fly in the sky. But it would be nice to see a little variety in the primary color.

  19. Regarding that American Airlines “flag”: count the stripes on it. Seems to be missing a couple: there are only 11. Perhaps that was to represent the Chapter 11 American filed right around the US Air acquisition.

    Regarding the Spirit paint job: Yellow and black is nature’s warning sign. You see it on bees, wasps, some snakes, and the roadway sign that reminds you to slow to 25 MPH or you’ll end up over a cliff. Spirit, good call.

  20. Yeah, the white fuselage with huge letters and a tail swoosh with logo is so 21st century; so millennial; and it so sucks. Unoriginal, uninspired and visual garbage. It will catch nobody’s eye like whatever it replaced once did. The cheatline may be dated, but it looks sharp. But this most recent style that every airline seems to be falling for is so boring and ugly.

    And, no, I couldn’t give a crap about the backstory to an ill-advised and ugly new paint job.

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