Updated on March 14, 2013
LAST MONTH, American Airlines unveiled its first major identity change in forty-plus years. The news broke as the carrier prepares to emerge from bankruptcy and contemplates a merger with US Airways.
American had bucked more than three decades of design fads. It’s distinctive silver skin, tricolor stripe and gothic “AA” logo date back to the days of the its 707 “Astrojets.” Heck, my first ever airplane ride, in 1974, was on an American 727 decked out in the very same paintjob that, until now, was American’s signature. It was never anything beautiful, but it was distinguished.
And the “AA” symbol, with its proud, cross-winged eagle, was one of the last true icons of airline branding left in the world. Created by Massimo Vignelli in 1967, it was everything a logo should be: elegantly simple, dignified, and instantly recognizable.
And now it’s gone, all of it, replaced by some gimmicky claptrap.
Simply put, I cannot believe how awful a makeover this is. It’s so disappointing that it pains me even to write about it, and how anybody signed off on this I’ll never understand.
The body and tail manage to be boring and garish at the same time, with a cheap, downmarket lilt to the whole thing. The typeface is the strongest aspect of the whole mess, and that’s not saying much.
Those are (almost) forgivable aspects. Doing away with the AA symbol, however, was a tragic and unspeakably bad call.
It has been said that the true test of a logo is this: can it be remembered and sketched, freehand and with reasonable accuracy, by a young child? The Pan Am globe, the Lufthansa crane, the Delta tricorn, Air New Zealand’s “Koru” and many others meet this criterion beautifully. As did the AA emblem. Maybe they need a tweaking or two over time, but the template of such logos — the really good ones — remains essentially timeless. American Airlines had one of the really good ones. And if you’ve got something like that, you dispense with it at your peril.
Particularly if you’re replacing it with something so utterly vapid. What exactly is that new, Greyhound Bus-esque logo? It looks like an eagle’s beak poking through a shower curtain. (Or, as one person described it, a linoleum knife cutting through a red and blue tile.) No other word will do: it’s horrible. If it’s not the worst corporate trademark I have ever seen, I don’t know what is. I can’t imagine a kid with crayons trying to sketch it. Why would he or she want to? It evokes nothing, it says nothing, it means nothing. It gives American Airlines all the look and feel of a bank, or a credit card company.
It’s not just bland, it’s ugly. Its uglier, even, than the hideous Horus head of the new EgyptAir. It’s uglier, even, than the “rising splotch” that Japan Airlines came up with a few years back to replace its beautiful tsurumaru — the circular, red and white crane/Rising Sun it had used since 1960.
JAL eventually did the smart thing and brought the tsurumaru back. If American has any sense, it’ll do the same with its AA.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that American didn’t need a spruce-up. The striping and typeface were overdue for a revision, and livery changes are all but mandatory, it seems, when airlines exit bankruptcy. While I’m not terribly fond of the new tail or fuselage, I can live with them. My complaint is mostly about the abandonment of the iconic “AA” logo.
I was at Kennedy Airport the other afternoon, and had the opportunity to view several American Airlines jets. I’m sorry, but there is nothing old or anachronistic about the AA emblem. It does not need to be “refreshed,” or “modernized,” as some have suggested. Replacing it with that awful linoleum knife is inexcusable.
If you’re as offended as I am, please sign this petition on Change.org
As a word of caution, however: The petition seems to be aimed at trying to keep the old livery intact in its entirety. I’m not sure this is a good idea. We can’t expect the company to completely reverse direction. Instead, the focus needs to be on the most important aspect of the design — i.e. retaining the “AA”. The logo — the trademark, the company emblem, to be reproduced on everything from stationery to boarding passes — is the heart of an airline’s graphic identity. Everything else revolves around this.
By the way, the AA wasn’t the only iconic logo to bite the dust recently. Spain’s Iberia Airlines just unveiled a new look as well, and has parted ways with its well-known “IB” symbol.
There has been an “IB” of one form or another atop the tails of Iberia’s jets since at least the ’60s. My favorite version, once seen on the carrier’s DC-8′s and earliest 747s, had the letters set inside a crosshatched globe, with the “IBERIA” name spelled out below. It was a handsome design, understated but unmistakable.
There’s no denying Iberia needed a revision. It’s latest colors and stripes were cluttered and overwrought. But their replacement is bland and generic, and the IB is gone entirely. Like American, they’ve turned to some banal abstraction instead.
And like too many other liveries of the last fifteen years, the new Iberia centers on a supposed “in motion” theme, featuring yet another, as it has been called, Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing.
Somewhere is a vending machine. Airline executives drop in a million dollars worth of consulting coins, and out pops the latest, curvy-swervy variant of the GMST. These arcs and curves are meant to be “sophisticated.” They suggest “movement” and energy and who the hell knows what else. But all they really do is make your airline indistinguishable from everybody else’s. With very few exceptions (Aeromexico is one), these designs are so dismally uninspired that it’s hard to look at them without yawning.
MORE ON AIR CARRIER LIVERIES AND BRANDING IN THIS ESSAY.