THE YIN & YANG OF AIRLINE IDENTITY

Part Two:  Names, Slogans & Salt Packets

Truth is, all the graphic design genius in the world will go straight into the lav when offset by a poorly chosen moniker. Branding is a lot more than visual impressions, it’s about sound as well — the raw intonation of an airline’s name, and those things it evokes or implies.

For the most impossible collection of tongue twisters, look no further than Russia, home to the likes of Adygheya Avia, Avialesookhrana, Aviaobshchemash, and Khalaktyrka Aviakompania.  And those are the short ones. The longest have been safely locked away into abbreviations and acronyms. KMPO is all you need to know — but if you insist, it’s Kazanskoe Motorostroitel’noe Proizvodstevennoe Ob’yedinenie, which is also the sound a person makes when gargling aquarium gravel.  Not to be outdone, there’s an airline in Kazakhstan called Zhezkazan Zhez Air. There are five Zs in that name.  I’m not sure how to pronounce it, but a loud sneeze should be a close enough approximation.

The prevalent trend these days is a fondness for ultra-quirky, should I say “fun” monikers.  We’ve had Zoom, Jazz, Clickair, Go Fly, Wizz Air.  Enough already.  Sure, it freshens things up, but can you really buy a ticket on something called “Bmibaby” (a regional branch of British carrier BMI) and still feel good about yourself in the morning?  The idea, I think, is to personify the ease and affordability of modern air travel. That’s fine, except that it also undercuts whatever shred of dignity the experience retains.  Similarly, we presume the intent of Clickair was to evoke the sound one makes while conveniently booking his or her ticket online.  Logical, but still annoying.  Hungary’s low-cost entrant Wizz Air also reminds us of a sound, though probably not the one they have in mind.

Another popular scheme is to take some boilerplate terms — “sky,” “globe,” “jet”, “air,” and so forth, and combine them as randomly and awkwardly as possible. Voila, you have Jetstar, Flyglobespan, or Skyairworld. For a while we had something called Skybus, headquartered out of Ohio.  Short of “Shitbox,” that’s about as devolved an airline name as could possibly be conceived.  (Airbus, at least, came into being before planes and buses were so frequently equated.)

Meanwhile, regional conglomerate Mesa Air Group, whose huge fleet of RJs and turboprops provides code-share service for several majors, is having success with an alter ego it formed about five years ago.  Capitalizing on a certain spirit of the times, the Mesa spinoff is dubbed — here it comes now — Freedom Airlines.  Ugh.  I met a Freedom Airlines pilot once at Kennedy airport.  He looked about seventeen and I was trying to figure out which company he flew for. I couldn’t make sense of the star-spangled logo on his ID badge, so I asked him.

“I fly for Freedom,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if he was answering my question or making a political statement. I wanted to put my arm on his shoulder. “We all do, son. We all do.”

Speaking of double meanings, nobody will ever outdo the hilarity of Taiwan’s now-defunct U-Land Airlines, which before it was shuttered — for safety violations no less — seemed to take the concept of the discount carrier to a whole new level.  And let’s not forget the nervy confidence of Russia’s Kras Air, always just an H away from infamy.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always been partial to the more thoughtful and symbolic names — those that evoke the imagery, history, or culture of their nations. Take Garuda, for instance, the national carrier of Indonesia. Borrowed from ancient Sanskrit, Garuda is the name of an eagle common to Buddhist and Hindu mythology, and one of Hinduism’s animal-god trinity.  It’s a little perplexing in that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, but let’s not bicker, lest it be switched to “Air Indonesia.”  Likewise, Avianca is a gorgeous word; “Air Colombia” would be awful.  Iberia is pleasantly rich compared to, say, “Spanish Airways,” and Alitalia has a much prettier ring than “Air Italy.”  If you insist on directly invoking your homeland, please do it with a bit of flair.  Royal Air Maroc and Royal Jordanian are acceptable examples.  Even Aeromexico has a pleasant flow to it.

Qantas, by the way, is not the name of an indigenous Australian marsupial. It’s an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service, founded in 1920.

In 1992 an airline called Kiwi International was started up by a band of ex-Eastern pilots, operating out of Newark. No strangers to failure, Kiwi’s founders tempered their upstart optimism with an ironic twist, calling their airline after a bird that can’t fly.  In New Zealand, a different Kiwi International launched services between Auckland and Australia.  The second Kiwi was, if nothing else, more geographically correct, its flightless namesake an icon of that country, but in both cases the name had a clever mocking-of-fate quality.  Alas, neither was successful for very long. You could say they asked for it.

Certain airlines cling to labels they’ve literally outgrown.  Thirty-five years ago, Southwest was an intra-state operator confined to the boundaries of Texas.  Northwest is gone now, but retained its homey geographic association right to the end – not an easy task considering the convolution of compass points that constituted that airline.  Known as Northwest Orient at the time, it merged with Republic Airlines in 1985.  Republic was itself the amalgam of North Central Airlines, Southern Airways, and Hughes Airwest.

But wait a minute, isn’t there a Republic out there today?  Indeed there is, which brings us to the annoying phenomenon of airline name recycling:

The existing Republic, one of the biggest regional carriers in the United States, is of no relation to the original. They’ve merely resurrected the name (albeit using the Airways suffix in place of Airlines).  And we’ve seen this before.  At one time or another we had two different reincarnations of Pan Am, two of Braniff, and a Midway.  All were in-name-only outfits, and none lasted very before joining their predecessors on that big tarmac in the sky.  When USAir — as US Airways was called at the time — purchased Piedmont and Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) in 1987, these brands had been so admired that a decision was made to keep the names alive.  They were given to a pair of USAir Express affiliates.  Suddenly, “PSA” found itself headquartered in Ohio, while at airports along the Eastern Seaboard passengers could (and still can) once again step aboard “Piedmont.”  Sort of.

By the way, the doppelganger Republic recently acquired struggling Frontier Airlines.  Frontier is, you guessed it, another appropriated moniker. The original Frontier, based in Denver, flew from 1950 until 1986.  At this point we’re getting layer upon layer of rehash.

While it might have a ripped-off name, the new Frontier uses a clever outdoors theme as an all-around marketing tool.  The tails of its Airbuses depict animals and birds native to North America, from mallards to hares to the blue crowned conure. “A Whole Different Animal,” is the airline’s wily catch phrase.  Bringing us to yet another facet of air carrier identity: the slogan.

As with logos or liveries, a slogan needn’t be particularly ingenious to be successful, but the right combo of sentiment and lyric rhythm go a long way. “We like you too,” jetBlue tells its customers — a bit presumptuous, maybe, but a capable tag for just that reason.  Korean Air’s “Excellence in Flight,” is another of my favorites. It’s pleasantly succinct and has a canny double meaning, without the pandering, we-do-it-all-for-you sentiments we expect from airlines.

We’ve heard some classics over the years. United scored big with the touchy-feely warmth of “Fly the Friendly Skies,” while Pan Am’s “The World’s Most Experienced Airline” pretty much said it all.  KLM’s “The Reliable Dutch Airline” excelled in its plainspoken modesty.  At Braniff, the most image-conscious airline of all time, it was “Coming Through With Flying Colors.” Perfectly apropos considering Braniff’s rainbow-painted fleet.

On the other hand, Eastern once billed itself “The Wings of Man,” which was definitely over the top, as is British Airways’ use of “The World’s Favourite Airline.” I suppose BA was under pressure to devise something with one of those cute British spellings that so charm Americans, but technically, measured by boardings, it’s the world’s 21st favourite airline.

Other unfortunate campaigns include at least two from Delta Air Lines, whose affable “Delta is Ready When You Are” was nixed for the gross vapidity of “Good Goes Around,” which sounded like the pitch for a diet cola.  An earlier slogan was “We Get You There.” Passengers don’t anticipate much from airlines any more, but talk about the nadir of lowered expectations.

If nothing else, be coherent. Stepping into the cabins of SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System), one is prone to notice the immaculate furnishings and tasteful, understated colors. All very Scandinavian, you could say, except for the period a few years ago when SAS chose to include a scattering of bizarrely rendered English slogans as part of its décor. “There are three ways to travel,” announced a placard near the forward boarding door. “In an armchair. In your imagination. Welcome to the third.”  What’s that now?  Later, when your meal arrived, the tray included conjoined packets of salt and pepper, upon which was written:

The color of snow,
The taste of tears,
The enormity of oceans.

Ah, what better for those quiet moments at 37,000 feet than the existential musing of the Scandinavian salt-poet.

And finally, advertising:

We have come a long, long way since the old National Airlines “Fly Me” campaign of the early 1970s. “I’m Lorraine,” a seductively posed stewardess would say to the camera. “Fly me to Orlando.”  Braniff had a similar pitch, called the “air strip,” showing attractive young stewardesses changing uniforms mid-flight to the sound of suggestive music.

But possibly the most memorable airline commercial I ever saw, if not entirely for the intended reasons, was the 1989 “winking eye” spot from British Airways.  Conceived by the Saatchi & Saatchi agency and directed by Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire), the commercial featured hundreds of people costumed to represent various world cultures, assembled in a dramatic landscape near Salt Lake City, Utah. The voice-over was from actor Tom Conti, and the score, from Leo Delibes’s opera ”Lakme,” was adapted by Malcolm McCLaren (of Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow fame). Seen from high above, the actors took on the shape of a gigantic face, which through the magic of carefully timed choreography proceeded to “wink.”  It was a stunning and altogether creepy 30 seconds. You can watch it here. Impressive for sure, but I get nervous when masses of oddly dressed people are winking at me.  What’s worse, I forever associate British Airways with footage of the crowds in North Korean stadiums forming those enormous profiles of the Dear Leader.

In the meantime, as if you need to be reminded, “DING, You Are Now Free to Move About the Country.”  Southwest’s TV tag, with its signature chime, is a brilliant evocation of the discount carrier’s key to success: affordable fares for everybody. Unfortunately, after hearing it for the five-thousandth time, it becomes grating enough to send any sensible person scurrying to a competitor.

 

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And while not to finish this essay into a morass of pedantic minutiae (too late, I know), let me take a minute to clear up a few of aviation’s more pervasive errors of usage and spelling. It’s a problem made worse by the media’s frequent bumbling of the names and designations of airlines, aircraft, and airports:

– It’s EgyptAir, with the camel cap, not “Egypt Air” or “Egyptair.”

– It’s Finnair, Icelandair, and Tunisair, with no camel caps or spaces, as opposed to “Finn Air,” IcelandAir,” “Tunisia Air,” or similarly botched variants.

– There is no Delta Airlines based in Atlanta, Georgia. There is only Delta Air Lines.

– China Airlines is the national carrier of Taiwan, Republic of China. Air China is based in Beijing, in the People’s Republic of China, the sworn enemy and claimant of Taiwanese sovereignty. The names are not interchangeable, and there is no such thing as “China Air.”

– This “Air” business is notorious, sloppily applied to any number of companies. “British Air” is a common one. Alaska Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways are also regular victims.

– Don’t put an N where none belongs. It’s not “Malaysian Airlines,” it’s Malaysia Airlines. And you’ll fly to Spain on Iberia, not “Iberian.” “Garudan Indonesia?” How about “Garuda Indonesian?” Nope, it’s Garuda Indonesia.

– There is no U in Qantas.

– Libya’s Afriqiyah Airways and Qatar Airways are two others whose Qs fly solo.

– When in doubt, leave it out. Emirates is Emirates. No prefix or suffix required. Ditto for Mexicana and several others.

– You cannot fly to Rome on “Air Italia” or “Alitalian.” It’s Alitalia.

 

A version of this essay appears in the new book. Click here!

 

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