Fly the Branded Skies

Remember when…

News leaked this week that United Airlines is polling its current and former employees on which classic livery to feature on a 757 next year. The livery will celebrate the airline’s 85th anniversary. Thanks to @GordonWerner, you can see the five options here. I don’t want to unduly influence the voting, but the Mainliner colours sure look sharp…

When United’s “retrojet” takes to the skies, it will join dozens of other airplanes painted in the bygone colours of dozens of different airlines. It seems almost every airline has a retrojet these days. The trend started ten years ago, and is only gaining momentum.

In part this reflects a nostalgic trend in marketing as a whole—consider Pepsi Throwback or Nike’s vintage running shoes. But nostalgia has particular power in airline branding. There is a sense (a dubious one, in my view) that air travel peaked in the 1960s. These retrojets could be seen as a rather superficial way to recapture the magic.

But I think it’s telling that United is asking not passengers but employees to vote on the new livery. An airline’s heritage can be a major point of pride for its employees. And with United’s merger with Continental, the timing can’t be completely coincidental. I mean, the 85th anniversary is important, I suppose, but it’s not, shall we say, the roundest number. The retrojet is a powerful symbol that United isn’t going away.

To trace the history of retrojets, I turned to an exhaustive source of all things aviation: It’s database of nearly 2 million photos is as complete a catalogue of airline liveries as one is likely to find. I searched the database for “retro” and here I list the first appearance of each airline’s retrojet livery:

1997: Air Canada

1999: American Airlines

2000: Avianca

2001: Mexicana, VARIG

2003: American Airlines, Rio Sul

2004: Delta Air Lines

2005: Lufthansa, Southwest Airlines, Turkish Airlines

2006: Aloha Airlines, SAS, US Airways (Allegheny), US Airways (America West), US Airways (Piedmont), US Airways (PSA)

2007: Iberia

2008: Air France, Austrian Airlines, Finnair, Hapag-Lloyd, Martinair Holland, Tarom

2009: All Nippon Airways, Continental Airlines, KLM

2010: Alaska Airlines, British Airways, TAM, Thai Airways

(One final note: United may not have a retrojet yet, but it does have the next best thing: a retro van.)

Update, 8 June 2011: Here are some new additions, and others I missed the first time around: Adria Airways (2011), Aer Lingus (2011), Air Berlin (2011), Garuda Indonesia 1 (2011), Garuda Indonesia 2 (2011), SAS (2006), United Airlines (2011), US Airways (newer America West) (2011)

Update, 30 July 2012: New additions: Alitalia (2012), CSA 1 (2011), CSA 2 (2012), Condor 1 (2011), Condor 2 (today!), Dniproavia (2012), TAM 2 (2010) Also, Air Canada’s retrojet dates to 1997, not 2004 as originally stated.

Update, 27 May 2013: New additions: Aeroflot (2013), Japan Transocean Air (Southwest Air Lines) (2013), Malaysia Airlines (2012)

Update, 15 April 2014: New additions: LOT Polish Airlines (2014)

Update, 19 October 2014: New additions: Air Malta (2014), American Airlines (Allegheny) (2014), American Airlines (America West) (2014), American Airlines (PSA) (2014)

Update, 16 November 2014: New additions: Qantas (today!)

Update, 17 December 2014: New additions: American Airlines (US Airways) (2014)

Update, 16 November 2015: New additions: American Airlines (Reno Air) (2015), American Airlines (TWA) (today!), Lufthansa (2015), Pakistan International Airlines (2015), Qantas (2015)

Update, 3 July 2016: New additions: American Airlines (AirCal) (2015), Malaysia Airlines (2016)