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…
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….