Instead of the State Flag, Southwest Honors Hawai’i with a Different Kind of Special Livery


For many years, Southwest has honored its largest destinations by painting an airplane with the state flag. The very first was, to the surprise of nobody, Texas One, painted in 1990 to celebrate the airline’s 20th anniversary. That was followed by Arizona (1994), California (1995), Nevada (1999), New Mexico (2000), Maryland (2005), Illinois (2008), Florida (2010), Colorado (2012), Missouri (2015), Tennessee (2016), and Louisiana (2018). For its latest undertaking, honoring the state of Hawai’i, the state flag is burdened with all sorts of baggage — and not the kind that flies free — so Southwest had to think this through carefully.

It isn’t a shock that Southwest would choose Hawai’i as the next state in its flag livery series. After all, the state has become rather important to the airline. It only started serving the islands in March of 2019, but by July of this year, the plan is to have nearly 500,000 departing seats from one of the five Hawaiian airports that Southwest serves. That’s good enough to be the 12th largest state for the airline, though interestingly it’s wedged between Georgia and New York, two states which don’t have a special livery.

Once the decision was made to pick Hawai’i, I can only speculate about how the internal process went. The natural progression would be to paint the state flag on the airplane, but to many of the kānaka — or native Hawaiians — that flag is a painful reminder of their lost homeland thanks to the illegal annexation by the US 130 years ago. That’s why you’ll often see locals flying the state flag upside down, a symbol of a nation in distress.

Painting the airplane in that flag would at best be divisive and at worst be panned across the board. At the same time painting it using the alternate 20-year old green/red/yellow flag that symbolizes the sovereignty movement would be too political in its own right. (But let’s be honest, this would look pretty cool on an airplane.)

Instead, Southwest did the smart thing and decided to go a different route, ignoring the flag entirely and instead painting the airplane with something new. It turned to a local company called Osaki Creative Group to design the vision, and it worked with a “Cultural Practioner” to presumably try to avoid offending people. Lastly, it set about putting it on an airplane.

Paint was done in Spokane, and the airplane was flown down to Long Beach where it was unveiled last Friday, April 28. I was able to go to the airport for the ceremony.

My first impression upon seeing the airplane fly past and do a go-around was that the colors were more muted than I would have thought. The finish appeared less vibrant than you see on the regular Southwest fleet, but it’s also hard to appreciate the livery from afar. And the hazy day after the marine layer burned off wasn’t exactly providing the ideal light.

Once the airplane parked next to us, I could really get a look at the airplane. I took several close-up shots so I can walk you through what’s on it. Let’s take a tour.

The airplane is not named Hawai’i One but rather Imua One. The concept of imua is to move ahead with purpose and spirit. The blue at the front turns into purple/red/orange/yellow to, as Southwest says, represent “the evolution from night to day, and honors the Hawaiian history of journeying the Pacific by using wind, and following the guidance of the sun, stars, and moon to navigate.”

On the body of the aircraft, there is first a lei with several different types of flowers in it. The different flowers are by design, choosing unique flowers to represent the different islands. They are meant to represent lōkahi for unity and harmony. Southwest takes this to mean “Succeed with Teamwork.”

Behind the flowers — in the purple — are paddlers in an outrigger canoe. This pushing forward is meant to represent imua, or for Southwest it’s “Go forward with strength, courage, and strong spirit.”

Behind the outriggers, we have the waves of the ocean, or kai, which makes sense since that’s where outrigger canoes would be. The ocean is included to “Harness good energy.”

Behind the ocean and most prominent on the engines are the triangles to represent ʻOhana, or family. Southwest gives this further meaning as “Root in relationship.”

Next is inverted red and black colors which represent the ʻĀina, or the land. These look like volcanoes, or at least mountains, to me. And for Southwest this means “Find Common Ground.”

As we move into the orange, we see the honu, or the turtle, which represents “Move with Perseverance.”

In the yellow in the back we have some chevrons pointing up which are not explained, so I don’t know what that is suppose to represent. After that, we come to the stars, or hōkū. There are five of those, and they represent the five airports that Southwest serves in the islands. This is there to “Guide with Purpose.”

Lastly, we have the woven look which apparently means ama (or ʻama? I can’t find the word used this way, so I’m not sure.) This is supposed to be about support, or as Southwest explains “Connect to Strengthen and Balance.”

And behind that, we have the Virgin Orbit 747, hoping someone will save that company. But I digress.

Overall, this airplane tells a story about Hawai’i and its people. The tradition of storytelling in Hawai’i historically used all sorts of methods from song to spoken word and dance, but now Southwest has decided to put this into its aircraft, carrying the story all over the US.

The natural question you might ask is… does this matter? It seems like a lot of expense and effort. Beyond the avgeek community, does anyone really care? And the answer is, it depends who you ask. I think the people that find this most meaningful are those who work in the islands for the airline. But beyond that, there are plenty of employees with Polynesian backgrounds who work around the system, especially on the West Coast.

I saw many of these people at the airport on Friday. Some work in Long Beach. Others had been flown in from the islands. Another was an Oakland-based flight attendant who had worked the flight down from Spokane and would fly it on to Honolulu. There was a lot of pride and appreciation for the work that went into this airplane.

Some may call this a case of cultural appropriation, including the use of a kahu (priest) to bless the airplane. But I think there’s real intention and purpose there that makes it more than just a meaningless marketing statement. I’m sure some will bristle at a Texas-based airline painting an airplane this way, but when that Texas-based airline has a significant number of employees with Hawaiian heritage, it becomes a tribute and a valuable one at that.

For a company like Southwest, making sure your employees feel cared for and appreciated is no easy task, but it’s an important one. Though many may feel it’s a waste of time or money, this does matter for many of the people who work for the airline above all else. That’s something airlines have often failed at over the years, and it’s one thing Southwest still does right.

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33 comments on “Instead of the State Flag, Southwest Honors Hawai’i with a Different Kind of Special Livery

  1. I’m not from the islands, but I really like the livery and the colors. Anything to add a bit of excitement and color to a plane, within reason; sure beats the many of the “standard” liveries around.

    I can’t help but think, however, that Southwest may have missed an opportunity or two when it left the nose & tail in its standard livery… Not that I have any better proposals, but that tail especially seems a little out of place, and from the nose-on view (which will be prominently seen by many pax while waiting at the gate), it’s a little tough to tell that this is a special plane.

    1. I’m sure those working the flights will make mention of this planes significance if the passengers miss it.

      1. True. And that could eat up a good half hour or so of flight time!

        Clearly WN chose to navigate the sticky politics with a combo platter approach and, other than most of the significance being indecipherable to 99% of us, it’s cool nonetheless.

        I agree with another commenter that it should have extended up the tail.

    2. Totally agree with you about the tail. The plane is beautiful until you reach the tail to see the same old hotdog-on-a-stick. Still a beautiful livery nonetheless.

    3. You are probably fight about the tail. Aa far as the nose, I think they were smart to keep it standard. If the radardome needs to be replaced putting a standard dome on would break up the scheme. Seen a couple of AS non standard AS planes with a standard nose cone and it looks odd. I would add that having non standard engine cowling presents a similar problem. Overall it looks like a well thought out scheme.

      1. Greg – The nose isn’t standard, actually. That blue is closer to the old Canyon Blue than the new shiny blue. I thought that was strange they didn’t just go with the standard blue up front.

        On the tail, that’s what they’ve decided to use as standard on all special liveries. Gives it some consistency, I guess. Better to have the branding somewhere.

  2. CF – you summarize this excellent piece very well in your last paragraph. You do it for the employees – their most valuable asset, regardless of whether they all buy into that premise, or not. Well done!

  3. I love a special livery airplane but have always wished airlines could incorporate the theme inside the airplane to keep that special feeling going. Nothing over the top, but with the flag airplanes I always wished they would have a flag symbol next to the heart on the bulkhead, as an example. Otherwise, once inside the plane there isn’t anything to keep that special feeling going.

    1. Don’t the Japanese airlines do a special interior scheme on their special livery airliners as well? I could be wrong, but I think I recall seeing that somewhere.

    2. AFAIK AS did this with one of their salmon themed 737s with decals on the overhead bins. Which seemed to be a bit much imho.

      But some airline have done special things in the cabin matching the external theme.

      The issue is it needs to be not too overboard, since people will be looking at it for hours.

  4. It’s definitely a awesome paint job.
    Many people also hoped WN holding the unveiling at LGB would have included an announcement of additional Hawaii flying from LGB with the 3 AA Slots they presumably picked up from the slot reallocation. But back to the aircraft WN did an amazing job taking their time showing off the new aircraft throughout the Islands over the following weekend. But I’m surprised they took the time
    To add the new seat back power on this MAX8 but didn’t retro fit the overhead bins with that new larger Ones.

  5. That’s a very tasteful livery. I’m guessing the reveal was done in Long Beach because it’s the home of the Cranky Flier.

  6. *Yawn*…an airplane is painted, all airlines do it, and it debuted at a secondary airport (LGB) like .00000000001% of the traveling public flies to…
    I think there is higher profile news to discuss like Starlink new transpacific service thats not another Asian LCC widebody carrier offering a compelling product. Or if you want to discuss airports what about news that EWR now #1 for Europe destinations from US, etc…Or Westjet acquires Sunwing…Or Jetblue now up to 3 Transatlantic destinations flights this summer, (London,Paris,Amsterdam) looks like it got what it wanted with commercially viable slots for Amsterdam service from JFK/BOS this summer/fall.
    Just my >02…but I still love every bit of this site and is the top aviation web blog IMO =)

    1. If the airplane were painted, flown to Long Beach, then painted back in the normal livery, then yes it would be rather stupid and not worth writing about.

      But since this it will be flying for years in this livery, thousands of passengers will fly on it and millions more will see it, so it will be noticed by all of the flying public for a while. That’s way more of a story rather than just discussing a number or a fact when it comes to launching new service or statistics for which airport is the busiest.

      1. All the airlines do special paint scheme, all the time, whats so special about this it needs its own special report? thats all I am wondering. Fresh paint on aircraft has zero affect on the traveling public. Just my .02 thats all.

        1. Pretty sure I explained that in the post. There are so many different sensitivities that go into figuring out how to design this that it makes it unique and interesting. At least it’s interesting to me, and the good news is that’s all that matters!

        2. First of all, not all airlines do special paint schemes.

          Second, you don’t have to care, there are plenty of people who don’t find airline news interesting in general and the same is true for any other specialized topic.

          But way fewer people are going to care that Starlux (not Starlink lol) is flying to America, JetBlue is flying to Amsterdam, that you can fly to more of Europe from Newark, or that Westjet acquires Sunwing. Those barely qualify as news.

  7. Well, it’s sure better than their Missouri plane, which has been objectively proven to be the ugliest livery ever to fly.

  8. I think it’s great! I recently flew SWA and the FA’s were back to their humorous announcements-glad to see they’ve regained their sense of fun after a tough December.

  9. Nice piece about Imua One, CF!

    “Ama” is Polynesian for the outrigger part of an outrigger canoe…put on for stability and support.

    1. Fred – AH! Thank you. I knew it was an outrigger but I didn’t think about how that is literally support. Makes total sense.

  10. I like the livery.
    This is probably a better example of corporate homage to a culture without going ‘woke’. CF’s writing was way more progressive (as usual) than the plane itself.

    Hope the employees and traveling public enjoy the plane…

  11. I really like it. The state flag of Hawaii also has Britain’s Union Jack in it, so cropped as it would be for a livery, it really wouldn’t scream “Hawaii” to mainlanders, regardless of political meaning.

  12. I just read this yesterday and today around 9 am I was working 2 blocks from PSP’s 31L runway as this very plane flew by me to land. Good timing!

  13. Thank you for sharing the article about Southwest’s new special livery honoring Hawaii. It’s always exciting to see airlines incorporate unique and meaningful designs into their fleet.

    Southwest’s decision to feature Hawaiian landmarks and cultural icons on their planes instead of the state flag is a thoughtful gesture that showcases the beauty and diversity of the Hawaiian islands. It also demonstrates the airline’s commitment to honoring the local culture and traditions of the places it serves.

    I understand why some people may have strong attachments to their state flag. However, I believe that Southwest’s decision to showcase Hawaii’s unique cultural heritage is a positive step towards fostering understanding and appreciation for different cultures.

    Overall, it’s great to see Southwest’s continued efforts to celebrate and honor the communities it serves. I’m excited to see what other special liveries they come up with in the future!

  14. Thank you for sharing the article about Southwest Airlines honoring Hawaii with a special livery. It’s wonderful to see airlines celebrating local culture and destinations through their aircraft liveries. Southwest’s decision to feature a unique design inspired by Hawaiian culture instead of using the state flag is a creative approach that showcases the vibrant spirit of the islands. Such initiatives not only promote tourism but also foster a sense of pride and appreciation for the diverse cultures around the world. Kudos to Southwest Airlines for their thoughtful and visually appealing tribute to Hawaii.

  15. That’s a really cool idea! I’m glad to see that Southwest is honoring Hawaii in such a special way, rather than using the state flag. It’s great that Southwest is showing their support for the Hawaiian community. I’m sure the people of Hawaii really appreciate the gesture.

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