As domestic airlines have taken a more sober approach to the business of flying, fancy fuselages and lively paint jobs have faded away. The color of choice these days is white.
Source: The New York Times
By JAD MOUAWAD
Published: December 23, 2011
After decades of frenzied competition and staggering losses, domestic airlines have taken a more sober approach to the business of flying, with their first priority making money. And so the fancy fuselages and lively paint jobs — remember TWA’s bold red lines? — have gone the way of free meals, pillows and checked bags.
The color of choice these days is sensible white. White does not fade as fast in the sun and requires fewer touchups. And without the added flash of color, less paint is needed, making planes lighter and saving fuel.
“There used to be romance in air travel,” said Steve Cone, a marketing expert who helped create the first frequent-flier programs. “The airlines were run by dreamers, creative types and entrepreneurs. They’ve been replaced by penny-pinchers who don’t think about the real estate outside of the plane.”
The staid designs reflect the current state of the industry. Unlike in their heyday in the 1970s, the airlines today have little reason to stand out. With just a handful of carriers still standing after dozens of mergers and bankruptcies, the survivors would rather focus their limited resources on improving business class, for instance.
Nor are people wowed by flying anymore. Few airports have kept observation decks, allowing travelers to marvel at planes taking off and landing. And with enclosed boarding ramps, passengers rarely even see the aircraft they board.
True, airlines still distinguish themselves with the design on their planes’ tails. But in an age when airline executives resist the idea that seats are mere commodities, the industry is becoming a lot more standardized.
“Nowadays, people want reassurance,” said Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, a design firm that collaborated with United Airlines for years until it merged with Continental last year. “That’s why there is a trend industrywide to err on the side of caution.”
At the dawn of commercial aviation, from the 1920s to the 1940s, manufacturers provided planes already painted, and airlines simply added their logos. After World War II, commercial aviation boomed. Airlines sought to customize their looks and often had a different design for each model of airplane.
Until government controls on prices and routes were lifted in 1978, airlines had no incentives to compete on fares and focused instead on their service and image. That was when Braniff Airways hired artists like Alexander Calder to paint its fleet in a rainbow of colors, and Pan Am turned to the Hollywood costumer Edith Head to design uniforms for its flight attendants.
Airlines do not break out how much it costs to repaint a single plane, but it is a laborious business. The aircraft is grounded for days at a net loss. Depending on the size of the plane and the complexity of the design, it can take six to 14 days to repaint one. A Boeing 737, the most common single-aisle plane, requires 60 gallons of paint, while the Boeing 747 jumbo jet needs more than 250 gallons.
US Airways is one airline that has shifted to a white design in recent years. The carrier is the result of a long string of mergers between airlines, each with its own colorful past, including Allegheny, Mohawk and Pacific Southwest. US Airways was acquired in 2005 by America West, which kept the US Airways name but got rid of the dark blue design as the carrier’s network expanded to the sunnier Southwest.
Delta Air Lines introduced its latest design in 2007 as it emerged from bankruptcy. The design featured a white fuselage and just four colors, instead of the eight used in its previous one, nicknamed “Color in Motion.”
It returned the triangle shape on the vertical stabilizers, a throwback to the airline’s origins in the Mississippi Delta. The design helped the carrier trim its costs by shaving a whole day in the painting cycle for each plane. Still, it took four years to repaint more than a thousand planes, including those of Northwest Airlines, which Delta acquired in the meantime.
“This is a business where economics determine long-term success,” said Tim Mapes, Delta’s head of marketing. “Not without coincidence, the airlines that employed the more colorful liveries no longer exist.”
American Airlines, for its part, has remained faithful to its vintage look of polished aluminum, first used in the 1930s on its DC3s, with an orange lightning bolt running along the fuselage. It adopted the current red, white and blue stripes over a bare aluminum skin in the 1960s. (American estimates that it saves $12 million a year in fuel by not painting its planes.)
Airplane enthusiasts are not thrilled with all the new designs. “It’s gotten pretty boring,” Manny Gonzalez, a plane spotter with an outsize camera lens, said on an early morning stakeout recently near Kennedy Airport. He was more attracted by foreign carriers sporting colorful designs than by domestic planes.
Some domestic carriers still seek to stand out. Alaska Airlines has a smiling Eskimo on its planes. (An attempt to remove him in 1988 was dropped after it raised a storm of protests. The state senate even passed a “Don’t Touch the Eskimo” resolution.) JetBlue has nearly a dozen designs for its tails. Frontier has kept pictures of animals on its planes since its merger with Midwest last year.
Southwest Airlines has also kept a distinctive look — painting planes red and blue, a scheme inspired by the rising sun over the Grand Canyon, according to Tim McClure, an executive with GSD&M, an advertising agency in Austin that has worked with Southwest since 1981.
When United announced its shotgun merger with Continental in May 2010, after just three weeks of secret talks, it also unveiled a new design: it simply affixed the United name onto the existing Continental colors (a white fuselage with a gray underbelly and a blue and gold globe on the tail). United fans soon set up a Facebook page called “Save the United Airlines Tulip,” calling on the airline to bring back its famous logo, a tulip created in the early 1970s by the designer Saul Bass.
But Mark Bergsrud, United’s head of marketing, argued that the new design reflected the global reach of United’s network, and its focus on attracting corporate travelers. The original Continental globe was also created by Mr. Bass in the late 1960s, although its shape was updated significantly in the 1990s by the New York design agency Lippincott.
“It fits who we are,” Mr. Bergsrud said. “We are not a niche player like Hawaiian, whose livery reflects the islands. Having some local flair is harder for an airline like us. Do we want to stand out? Absolutely. But spiffy liveries just have to fall to a lower level of priority.”