Flying Art: How Aircraft Liveries Define Airlines

DALLAS — Imagine you are boarding a flight and catching sight of the airplane that will transport you to a different city or country for the very first time. What captures your attention first? Undoubtedly, it is the aircraft livery. From pristine white fuselages to intricate tail logos and a plethora of vibrant ideas and designs in between, airplane liveries play a pivotal role in shaping an airline’s image, aligning it with its products and the overall in-flight experience.

Crafting an airline livery is a complex and time-consuming process that requires careful consideration before entering the market. Choosing the right colors, symbols, and artistic trends that will grace the fleet for years to come is not a task that can be accomplished single-handedly; external assistance is often sought.

Based in San Francisco, USA, Landor & Fitch stands as one of the most esteemed and influential brand consulting firms, having played a crucial role in designing and integrating significant liveries for airlines like Etihad Airways (EY), British Airways (BA), and more recently, ITA Airways (AZ), alongside countless other companies spanning various industries worldwide.

Recently, Airways had the privilege of conversing with Ryan Frost, the Executive Creative Director at Landor & Fitch, who has dedicated 15 years of his career to the company, working on diverse projects encompassing brand development, architectural design, packaging, and environmental concepts for airlines.

We delve into the intricate process of designing aircraft liveries, explore the prevailing trends in the aviation industry, and uncover the intriguing history behind some of the most iconic designs in commercial aviation.

Ultimately, we hope your readers will gain a comprehensive understanding of how aircraft liveries define and shape the identity of airlines.

Southwest Airlines unveils Imua One, a Hawaii-themed specialty livery. Photo credit: Stephen M. Keller/Southwest Airlines

First Steps of a Livery Design

“It can be quite complex to get to the delivery. The typical design process for us is to start very much at the brand level, so we start with the understanding of the business and where it wants to go, moving then into the business strategy and therefore the brand strategy more often than the livery itself,” Frost said.

This is done to take into account not only economic aspects but also cultural and ethical inspiration from the country of origin of the airline or even the range of destinations that are generally served by it so that the livery can be designed as a representation of the goals and milestones of the carrier.

During this phase, the initial ideas begin to take shape, typically depicted on a two-dimensional scale. These concepts are then presented to the client airline to gauge their excitement and initiate a collaborative process toward selecting and refining the final product. It is only at this point that a specific set of ideas is chosen to be translated into 3D models of the aircraft, which will serve as the basis for the airline’s desired paint scheme.

The transformation of the design into the third dimension holds significant importance. This is where the design team can assess how well the idea integrates with the aircraft, examining its overall coherence from various perspectives. This includes checking the tail alignment, the positioning of passenger boarding doors, and even how it appears from below when seen by customers at cruising altitudes.

Numerous designs have been conceived and discarded during this phase, such as the latest livery for EY. This livery features an asymmetrical arrangement of geometric shapes along the fuselage, requiring the creators to meticulously and independently align both sides of all aircraft to ensure a seamless match at the top and bottom sections of the fuselage.

One of the toughest jobs during the design of a livery is fitting the general idea into all the airplanes in the fleet. Photo: Vera.Vvo (Wikimedia Commons).

Fitting the Final Design Into an Aircraft

Additionally, a significant portion of the design process is dedicated to adapting the primary livery design to all the various aircraft in the fleet. While this may appear to be a simple and straightforward task, adjusting the logos, symbols, and outlines of the design can prove to be a daunting challenge for the creative team, especially when the customer operates a diverse range of aircraft.

In the case of Aurora Airways (HZ), the airline that Frost has been collaborating with for several months, the design team faced the task of transferring the design from a typical Airbus A319 to the DHC Q200s and Twin Otters, which possess completely different engines, wing, and tail configurations compared to the A319. Ryan explains, “The proportions of these two aircraft are significantly different, and designing the livery for them was akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube.”

Furthermore, the creative team maintains constant communication with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to coordinate the appropriate painting of the aircraft and understand the constraints and parameters associated with applying the livery to different aircraft types. The manufacturer’s technical department then assesses the feasibility of the concept and provides insights into the difficulty and cost involved in implementing the final design on the aircraft.

These insights become part of the “technical drawings,” which specify down to the millimeter the location of each part of the livery design, ensuring that no crucial part of the aircraft is covered by the paint. This is also where the selection of paint products and application methods is determined based on the style and complexity of the design.

Ryan adds, “Maintaining strong relationships with manufacturers and maintenance organizations is crucial to fulfilling the brand’s aspirations.”

With the introduction of the Airbus A380, Etihad Airways presented one of the most unique and complex liveries, which differed from the general trends in 2014. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

The Etihad Airways’ Livery Message

Etihad Airways (EY), the second-largest airline in the United Arab Emirates, was taking delivery of its first Airbus A380 aircraft almost a decade later than the rest of the airlines, so they took advantage of this great milestone to update their aircraft livery. With the introduction of the “Superjumbo.”

With the help of Landor & Fitch, EY was the first airline in the world to introduce to the market the “Low Poly” technique, which consisted of the use of polygonal shapes, to texturize the canvas in a stylistic form and started to become popular in 2014 with the introduction of 3D printers.

“Etihad wanted something that would create news, spectacle, and a new marvel within the category, and that was a prime opportunity for us to think about how the rest of the brand was also supporting that new story in the world as well,” Frost said.

While still maintaining the recognizable shades of brown from its old brand, Etihad revolutionized the livery market by completely switching from a very detailed logo to a very elegant and minimalistic concept, which perfectly matched the big transformation event in the airline with the introduction of the first Airbus A380 aircraft.

Delivering a message with the livery is one of the most crucial aspects to consider when applying a new scheme to an airline. There have been many situations where the aircraft livery served as a “messenger pigeon” for the company to transmit to the rest of the world a symbol or a statement about their new strategies.

With its completely blue fuselage, ITA Airways said goodbye to the rising “Eurowhite” livery trend in Europe. Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways.

The British Airways “Landor” Livery

One of the most important contributions of the consulting firm “Landor & Fitch” to the aviation industry was made in collaboration with British Airways (BA). Shortly after the largest merger between BEA and BOAC, the airline was looking to create a new brand to include the history of Britain’s most legendary airlines as well as transition into a new era with a single carrier in the country.

After the inauguration of the Negus & Negus livery in 1974, combining the symbolism of the former companies into one single livery, British Airways was already looking for a new design just 10 years later. Landor & Fitch was then assigned to arrange the development of the scheme, which today is recognized worldwide as one of the most legendary aircraft liveries in history.

Ryan Frost, about the “Landor” 1984 livery, said, “Our work with the subsequent livery was to be able to tighten what that livery was promising the customer in terms of premium level of experience and sophistication of the brand, as British Airways was starting to mature on that journey.”

“We were very respectful of the previous insignia that Negus created,” he continued. “We made subtle changes, like the inclusion of the British Airways crest and the slight gray instead of the white, that helped the livery to feel warmer and more sophisticated.”

The introduction of the 1984 BA livery was well received by customers and the British population, and to this day, it has maintained its name with the outfit that was in charge of the making of the design, Landor.

The 1984 livery was one of the three Boeing 747 heritage liveries that were applied to the fleet just before the retirement of the Queen of the Skies in the year 2020.

The bold design of the new Icelandair (FI) livery has given the airline a feeling of cheapness and affordability. Photo: Nick Sheeder/Airways

Low-Cost Versus Premium Airline Liveries

Looking at British Airways (BA), Air France (AF), or Cathay Pacific (CX) liveries, among many others, the first impression that the customer receives is always one of elegance, trust, and exclusivity. However, when looking at low-cost carriers such as Ryanair (FR), Spirit Airlines (NT), or EasyJet (U2), we perceive a contrary feeling of attractiveness and affordability.

Many would say that the livery of aircraft is not directly related to the sensation the customer may have about the service and inflight experience of an airline, but actually, companies spend years to correctly choose the design that matches mostly the economic objective of the carrier.

“The entire fuselage of the aircraft is a canvas for expression, and it is closely related to the amount of visual disruption and noise that comes from the livery,” said Mr. Frost. Essentially, low-cost carriers tend to use the fuselage of the aircraft as another form of advertisement for their brands. The more visual and attractive the livery is, the easier it is to catch the eye of the potential customer.

On the other hand, premium airlines try to avoid overwhelming the airplane with big brands and logos, as for them, the aircraft is just “the thing that is taking passengers from their start to their final destination, and it is really inside that the brand really comes to life through that experience,” according to Frost.

Looking at the Cathay Pacific (CX) or Air France (AI) liveries, these airlines have similar scheme structures, where only the tail is covered by the brand logo and the titles are displayed just near the entry door to the aircraft. However, low-cost airlines extend their designs from nose to tail, covering the largest amount of the fuselage and rudder with their symbols and logos.

It is a good time to remember the former unique green fuselage of the Aer Lingus (EI) fleet, which is disappearing from the skies as aircraft get repainted. Photo: Miles Aronovitz/Airways

Fight for Differentiation Among Today’s Trends

Since the introduction of Air France’s “Eurowhite” livery in the 1970s, Europe has suffered a very large trend, especially prominent during the latest decade, where iconic aircraft schemes have fallen into a repetitive pattern, leaving the fuselage white and only applying paint to the tail along with the logo.

Some of the airlines that followed the “Eurowhite” trend around the world were Iberia (IB) and Avianca (AV) in 2013, and Aer Lingus (EI) in 2019, which drastically switched from colorful and attractive designs to flat and simple schemes, sometimes even making them undistinctive from faraway sights.

“When you look across European airlines, it is hard to differentiate them, and our job as a brand consultant is to carve out differentiation in the marketplace to help our customers. If everything looks the same, then we are not empowering our customers to understand the difference and make an informed decision; the livery itself is a promise of that experience,” said Ryan Frost.

Ultimately, having a largely monolithic white livery makes sense if an airline wants to reduce the amount of cost in paint and maintenance, the weight of the aircraft, or the transfer of aircraft between airlines in the same group. However, as Mr. Frost said, “Airlines therefore completely lose the opportunity to promote their differentiation.”

There are only a few airlines that keep colorful and unique liveries on their fleets nowadays, such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL), the renewed ITA Airways (AZ), or more recently, JetBlue (B6), which revealed its new scheme just a few days ago.

Identifying a Landor & Fitch brand and design is very easy by paying attention to the many hidden details that always remind you of the airline you are flying on. Photo: ITA Airways

Landor’s Identifying Marks

To conclude our insightful conversation with Landor & Fitch’s Executive Creative Director, we wanted to inquire about the distinctive elements in the design of a passenger aircraft livery that are closely associated with the Landor style and design.

Ryan Frost explained, “Our focus is on bringing the brand closer to the customer, ensuring that it delivers on its promise of providing a remarkable experience and that the brand has your needs covered. We strive to make this experience as immersive as possible, so proximity is a key aspect that characterizes Landor & Fitch.”

He further elaborated, “When you observe a Landor aviation project, you will notice unique details that exemplify our approach. For instance, in the case of Alitalia, the predecessor to ITA, there was no small Italian flag sewn into the headrest of every seat. However, now, when you board an ITA aircraft, you will see this iconic flag. Additionally, as you enter the aircraft through the boarding door, you will find a scaled-down version of the logo.”

He continued, “If you explore the fabric design of the pillow inside an Etihad Airways aircraft, you will discover subtle elements inspired by the facets of the city of Abu Dhabi. These hidden gems, both inside and outside the aircraft, serve as distinct identity marks of Landor & Fitch, showcasing our commitment to meticulous attention to detail and conveying the message of an exclusive and unparalleled experience on board these airplanes.”

Ultimately, the livery is the first visual encounter for passengers as they board the aircraft. The airline logo, the cleanliness of the design, and the striking titles all leave a lasting impression on the customer, facilitating a clear recollection of the unique and comfortable journey they experienced with the airline.

Featured image: All Nippon Airways

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