Airline Livery Designers: Please Stop Boring Us With Your Plain Planes!

Quiz Number 1: Match the liveries with the choices below:

  1. Delta
  2. Qantas
  3. Swiss
  4. Emirates


Quiz Number 2: Match the liveries below with the following airlines:

  1. American
  2. Southwest
  3. Iberia
  4. KLM


With the exception of Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, and Spirit Airlines, the major airlines in the U.S. have turned to a less colorful money saving strategy when it comes to the paint jobs (technical term= livery) on their airplanes in the last several years. I didn't put the cost of fuel and the abundance of boring airplane liveries together until taking a tour of Boeing last year in Everett, Washington: The more pigment you add to the paint, the heaver the paint.  We're talking about a period in commercial aviation where airlines study the fuel savings on an item removal basis. Remember when US Airways tried the Buy Your Beverage program?  Less beverages had to be loaded- therefore less fuel would be burned.

I'm all for fuel savings. After all, if my airline loses money then my job is in jeopardy. But does saving money mean you should sacrifice your branding?


An all white airplane does not have to look boring. An all white airplane also does not have to look just like every other white airplane.  At the end of the day it's a design challenge. As designers we are problem solvers, given specifications (ie-the body of the airplane must be mostly white) and asked to come up with something interesting, visually pleasing, and catchy. Somewhere between the design process and the airlines' approval of the livery for these uninspiring pieces of flying metal the designs have failed.

The biggest failed example is United Airlines. For those who have been living under a rock- United bought Continental Airlines.  Take a look at their new livery: It is essentially a Continental Livery where they changed out "Continental" and replaced it with "United." 

united airlines new livery

You could even go so far to say the new design was a United plane where they switched out the tails.  My point is that there is nothing in the design beyond the logo on the tail and the name of the airline that makes the livery design unique.  I mean why don't we just paint the word "Airplane" on the side? Would anyone notice? Probably not.  Have I missed the market research where the findings determined this boring livery concept generates more revenue?

That brings me to the most successful use of the cost saving white fuselage (the body of the airplane) concept: Frontier Airlines. 


Thanks to the abundance of generic looking airplanes flying around our skies, Frontier's use of large scale text wins with 'flying' colors (err gray scale). And come on...a different animal for each tail of the airplane? That gets me excited every time.  I'm just waiting for the planes to actually have a conversation like I see on TV.

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A- None of them (Air France)? B- Emirates C- Delta D- Qantas

Grace August 31, 2011 at 01:30 pm

You may or may not be correct...but does it really matter? I'd love to see more guesses to further illustrate my point.

Grace, welcome to UPGRD.

I can't stand the Frontier liveries--I think they look tacky.

I like simple, sleek designs like UA, LH, LX.

The only "out-there" design I like is the gold Gulf Airways livery.

Grace August 31, 2011 at 06:52 pm

It's great to be here at UPGRD.

Frontier: Tacky or not, it's a different and effective use of the all white fuselage (body of the airplane) scheme. You have to consider the low-cost ticket market Frontier appeals to: families, leisure travelers, people who want to get away to have fun.

I am the first to say I love sleek design (Minimalism is practically the first lesson we learn in school) but you can be sleek & simple without being generic.

What is it that you like about the United livery? What is it about generic looking liveries? I mean that in the nicest way...because this blog is more than just writing: I hope to gain insight and learn too. Maybe I missed something and was quick to judge.

Brad August 31, 2011 at 07:03 pm

Welcome to Upgrd Grace!

Great post.

The only one I could tell for sure is Delta being C. The others are too ambiguous.

I'm actually a fan of Frontier, its simple, and their livery actually scales well to their Airbus as well as Embraers.

One from the recent past I like is Northwest. I would define it as sleek. Other current designs I like are ANA, and V Australia.

Roland September 1, 2011 at 10:06 am

V Australia looks far too similar to Qantas, especially for a duopoly market.

Grace September 1, 2011 at 04:23 pm

Roland, You are right! That's a bit confusing isn't it?

Brad September 1, 2011 at 09:59 pm

I guess it is pretty similar to Qantas, at least in color scheme, but What I do like about the V Australia livery is that its not just a plain white base for the whole plane as it is on Qantas (and Swiss, Emirates, etc etc)

A actually looks like Alitalia on the winglet.

Another factor to consider is paint maintenance- many airline seem to paint only the tails- e.g. EK, QF and so on. Imagine replacing a panel on a coloured aircraft like SOuthwest have- you then get the added expense of respraying... at least and all-white aircraft you could potentially get a spare or used part from another carrier with all-white body.

A lot of aircraft are also leased rather than owned (for example, QF and Emirates each lease a certain amount of aircraft) It makes sense to minimise the painting costs involved if you must return it to the former state when the lease is up. (Generally, the aircraft are all white, in which case the painting required might only be limited to the rear of the aircraft and to covering any titles)

I recall the that Qantas special livery 747 'Wunala Dreaming' carried an extra 40t of weight due to the Aboriginal full colour scheme. To date QF have only added one aircraft since, a smaller 737-800, with all other special liveries being decals that can easily be removed.

Karla B. November 27, 2011 at 09:44 pm

Dear Grace,

I'm scared of math, so you can imagine how the cabin load forms terrify me! Everyone is complaining that I'm too slow! Is there a fast, simple way to do them? Calculating children in the total makes me crazy.

thanks a bunch, Karla

pu December 25, 2011 at 09:00 am

Branding =/= (does not equal) to what something look like. Customer experience is so much more important for any business in the services industry. Passengers don't care what's painted on the plane they're on, they're more worried about whats inside the plane. Is my seat clean? Does my IFE work? Will the food be nice?

Having an exciting livery hardly means more profit. Qantas, one of the most profitable airline in the world belongs on your boring list.

If i had my way, all planes would be unpainted like the old AA planes!

Mike December 27, 2011 at 11:05 am

@pu and Qantas being profitable has nothing to do with their livery. Having a duopoly for decades in a country with high barriers to entry is more likely.

While I agree with you that most customers don't care what's on the outside of the plane, the recent rash of boring look-alike color schemes certainly make it harder to differentiate one airline from the next and I think that leads to brand confusion.

Stefan December 28, 2011 at 08:39 am

I disagree with some of the posters. All you have to do is look at the second example - I bet most people could easily name all four airlines in the second example just from the paint colours alone quite easily! I certainly did. THAT is brand awareness and I think it DOES matter. However, to be fair, we all know what the Qantas logo is on the tail fin, right? Emirates, Swiss, United or Delta spelled out is easy to read - its just unimaginative.

Grace January 3, 2012 at 04:21 pm

@Stefan I completely agree with you, which is why I wrote this blog post! The livery is just one more component to branding. It's another surface to inundate your customer with your brand. Otherwise it's wasted space. You want your customers to recognize your brand....when they see the airplane they think of all of the other things about that airline: The comfortable seats, the pleasant experience of their flight (or eek- not so pleasant!), their far-away travels, etc. So while a livery isn't an airline's sole branding- it's a huge part of it.

Hi Grace, you speak right from my heart!

However, convincing the airline and aircraft owners to break from tradition is an uphill struggle. Many don't even like the slightest hint of flambuoyance. Especially if it means extra weight? "What?! fifty kilos extra! That's #### dollars over the aircraft life!"

I have done a couple of commercial and a couple of sport aircraft liveries (initially as an extension to my hobby) and the most interesting has been a privately owned Airbus - except that after seeing choices I end up with a "White and a stripe" livery being the choice. "Corporate Image"

Even the sportplanes so far have been fixed by the owner to a two-colour scheme...

So we designers will continue to tell the owners that they ought to be PROUD to show their marque and that flambuoyance is not necessarily bad (look at Branson/Virgin) and we will hope that one day we are allowed to play with our passion...