Fly the Branded Skies

Jingle: United “Fly the Friendly Skies” (1965)

Fly the friendly skies of United.

Listen: United Air Lines: “Fly the Friendly Skies”

“Fly the Friendly Skies” is without question the best-known airline tagline of all time, and it oughta be. United used it for more than 30 years.

That in itself is rare. Even rarer is the fact that for all those years, United employed the same advertising agency: Leo Burnett, Chicago.

Burnett was United’s agency from 1965 to 1996. In advertising, that’s ages, especially now, when agency relationships tend to last only a few years. Certainly not decades. And airline accounts have historically been particularly fickle.

Consider that in the entire time Burnett served as United’s only agency, Pan Am went through several: J. Walter Thompson; Ally & Gargano; N. W. Ayer; Doyle Dane Bernbach; Wells Rich Greene; Della Femina, McNamee WCRS; and… well, oblivion. TWA went from Foote, Cone & Belding to Wells Rich Greene to Ogilvy & Mather to Young & Rubicam to Avrett, Free & Ginsberg to Backer Spielvogel Bates to D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.

The jingle you can listen to here is taken from a record produced by Leo Burnett to celebrate the 15th year of the relationship. And that wasn’t even the halfway point.

Burnett’s tenure was not only long, but productive. To my mind, they produced some of the best airline advertising ever for United. The line, “fly the friendly skies,” has all the folksiness Leo Burnett is famous for. In print and on television, United’s advertising tended to tell stories about passengers: a kid’s first trip to New York, or a cowboy flying for the first time. It never failed to make the airline seem genuinely friendly.

The longevity of “fly the friendly skies” is also a testament to the mnemonic power of jingles. In the later 1960s, United’s commercials often featured a popular song (John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me,” “Let’s Get Away From it All”) rearranged to include “fly the friendly skies of United” at the end. The commercials could therefore be very different, and still be connected by a very strong brand. Later campaigns varied the tune, and even the wording, but the “friendly skies” endured until 1996.

Airline: United Airlines
Title: “Fly the Friendly Skies”
Agency: Leo Burnett, Chicago
Written By: Don Tennant1
Year: 1965 (this version rerecorded in 1978)


Fly the friendly skies…
Fly the friendly skies…
Fly the friendly skies of United.

Updated June 10, 2013: Corrected the “written by” credit.

  1. Don Tennant is widely credited with writing the line “Fly the friendly skies.” I have been unable to determine if he wrote the music as well; it seems entirely possible, as he had many roles at the agency. If he didn’t, it might have been Dick Marx or Frank Gari. []


  • Cjackallen

    Enjoyed this – great read!

    Any tag that lasts 30 years is occasionally going to get jazzed up.  Did anybody besides me notice that United and American ended up using the exact same melody there for awhile?  Kind of an “on air collision,” I guess.It always cracked me up — it’s the grande finale, the climax of the commercial… and they’re using the same tune! Compare “fly the friendly skies” at 0:54 of this 1982 United ad ( )… with “…special in the air” at 0:27 of this 1984 American spot ( )My gosh, I think they’re even in the same key.Now in fairness, AA was sort of riffing on its own “doing what we do best” thing, and there is that extra “something” in there before “special.” But Bob Crandall would never spend a buck he didn’t have to.  I always wondered if he just lifted United’s tune instead of developing a better one.

  • Fly the Branded Skies

    I do believe you’re right. That’s very funny. That wasn’t the only United spot that used that tune for the tagline, either. There were many, many of them. However, they were in the late 1970s, not 1982 as the YouTube upload suggests. By 1979, United had already moved on to “That’s What Friendly Skies Are All About.”

    On the one hand, they almost seem too similar to be a coincidence. On the other, American still had to pay a jingle house full price; they wouldn’t have saved any money copying a competitor, nor would they have wanted to. The main advantage of jingles is supposed to be that they’re distinctive.

    So either it really is a coincidence — remember it was somewhat harder in those days to refer to old ads — or there was some connection, maybe a common arranger or composer, and Bozell (American’s ad agency at the time) fell asleep at the switch. Unfortunately I can’t find enough information on the United jingle to be able to tell.

    Thanks for bringing this up though! I am eventually going to write about “United We Fly,” the jingle in the Nancy spot, and I may be able to explore this further.

  • Cjackallen

    Laughing here… exactly, jingles are supposed to be distinctive! I’m sure there was nothing deliberate – probably just an innocent coincidence, Maybe a  “will anybody notice / care” somewhere up the approval chain. Maybe not.

    Really appreciate the reality-check and enjoyed your response .  Late ’70’s sounds more like it to me, so thanks for validating that, too.  Consider me tuned in for “United We Fly”!

  • drumsticks

    Where is Bonnie Herman’s vocal?