Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jetset: "Plane Art"

Even in today’s increasingly crowded skies, an airplane remains a thing of engineering and aesthetic beauty. Little wonder, then, that the unveiling of a new or special livery (i.e. paint scheme) for a major carrier often generates the kind of buzz usually reserved for fashion gurus launching their latest collections.

In the United States, the liveries of major carriers – past and present – have become iconic designs: Pan-Am’s all-white fuselage and blue-globe tail; American’s shiny bare metal body and red-and-blue eagle tail; and United’s gray fuselage and color-striped tulip tail. These patterns often adorn a carrier’s fleet for decades and become ingrained in the public mindset.

As some airlines have found out, messing with such famous corporate images can spell trouble for their business. Delta twice abandoned its classic widget tail in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the dismay of many loyal fliers. The hasty makeovers reflected incoherent management of the period, which eventually led the airline to bankruptcy court. Not surprisingly, when Delta emerged from bankruptcy protection, a modernized red widget reappeared on its aircraft tails – and it went on to acquire Northwest to become the world’s largest airline.

British Airways has also learned its lesson the hard way; in the late 1990s, it ditched the longtime Union Flag scheme in favor of abstract world images – including Chinese calligraphy – on its aircraft tails to showcase the countries it flew to. These so-called “ethnic tails” proved controversial with the public, and even caused problems with air traffic controllers, who found it harder to identify BA planes. BA returned to an updated Union Flag livery in 1999.

Closer to home, China’s top three airlines have preferred simplicity to creativity since the breakup of the former state monopoly CAAC in the late 1980s. All three have chosen a white-body motif, with the company names in both Chinese and English prominently displayed. Tail designs set them apart – Air China with a red phoenix formed by a stylized “VIP”; China Eastern with an artistic rendition of the letter E that looks like a white swallow inside a red-and-blue circle; and China Southern with a red kapok flower on a blue background. Quite a few other domestic carriers, including Hainan and Shanghai, have opted for the auspicious red tails.

While no Chinese airlines have gone as far as EVA (Hello Kitty) or ANA (Pokémon), they are certainly becoming more inspired. Shanghai-based China Eastern has painted two colorful World Expo 2010 planes to promote the big event, with another four jets to be painted with winning designs from the public on the same theme. The only airline that may want to reconsider its livery is low-cost carrier Spring. The big green lettering of its website ( across the white fuselage makes sense – except sometimes that hyphen is a bit hard to see. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 96 of the September 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.