Rare Aluminum Birds: A History of Commercial Aircraft Livery
Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines introduced “Tennessee One” this week in Nashville, a specially painted Boeing 737, adorned with the Tennessee flag. It’s the latest in a long line of special livery aircraft for Southwest, and among the dozens of planes with many other airlines featuring unique paint schemes for everything from Hello Kitty to “Star Wars.”
For the first 60 or so years of airline service, each carrier had a unique paint scheme for every single plane, known as a “livery.” An airline’s livery makes their planes easily identifiable, whether at the airport or in the air. Then somewhere around the 1970s, Braniff International Airways began painting their jets in a rainbow of colors — blue, orange, green, purple, and even with patriotic Bicentennial hues.
In 1987, Southwest followed with “Shamu One,” a Boeing 737 with a 110-foot-long Orca painted on the side, to celebrate its marketing partnership with SeaWorld. Southwest added two more Shamu aircraft to the fleet in the early 1990s, but they were all repainted in 2015, due to the backlash from the documentary, “Blackfish.” Southwest also has 737s painted with state flags for some of its biggest state presences, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas.
One popular trend among airlines is to fly at least one plane in a vintage or retro livery from the airline’s early days. Here in the U.S., American has several planes wearing heritage liveries from throughout its history, including those of recently merged U.S. Airways.
PHOTO: Aer Lingus vintage livery. (photo courtesy of Aer Lingus)
U.S. Airways had retro liveries for the following airlines which has since been transferred over to American: Allegheny, Piedmont, PSA, and America West. American has their own vintage livery plane, the “Astrojet,” along with planes painted for TWA and Reno Air — airlines that have been merged into American over the years. Alaska Airlines has some really great-looking special liveries, including a few for Disney theme parks, one featuring hand-drawn Hawaiian designs, and even a giant salmon.
Foreign airlines have also embraced special aircraft paint jobs.
In Europe, several airlines have their own retro liveries, such as Aer Lingus, Air France, KLM, and Lufthansa.
Photo via YouTube/ANA
In Japan, All Nippon Airlines (ANA) has three planes painted for the most recent “Star Wars” movie, “The Force Awakens.” These include a Boeing 787 painted like R2D2, and a 777 and 767 painted in the likeness of the lovable BB-8 robot. ANA also had planes painted with Pokemon characters, up until 2013. Eva Air has a plane decked out from nose to tail in Hello Kitty. Even the emergency evacuation cards feature the famous smiling cat.
READ MORE: JetBlue Airways Reveals 'Bluemanity' Livery
Sports partnerships also lead to special liveries. Middle Eastern airline Qatar Airways has a plane with a special scheme for the soccer team FC Barcelona. Air Asia has a plane specially decorated for Manchester United. Before being bought by Southwest, AirTran had planes painted for the Atlanta Hawks, Indianapolis Colts, Milwaukee Brewers, Orlando Magic and Baltimore Ravens.
No matter where you’re flying or which airline you’re on, special livery planes are like a fun “Where’s Waldo” at the airport. Next time you’re at the airport, be on the lookout for one of these rare aluminum birds.
More by Paul Thompson
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