United is Repainting All its Planes in a New Look — That Was Just Leaked

When Continental took over United they kept the Continental reservation system, website, and leadership. And they painted the planes with the Continental globe, dropping the United tulip. They even considered abandoning “Rhapsody in Blue.” Thank goodness they didn’t throw George Gershwin overboard.

Thinking at the time was United was a basket case and Continental management savvy, but Gordon Bethune and Larry Kellner were already gone and the airline was being run by a Chief Executive that would ultimately promise “Changes You’re Going to Like” but become embroiled in an FBI investigation over bribing a public official.

The airline was supposed to be reborn under new Chief Executive Oscar Munoz who had experience in rail transportation and as an airline board member but not as an airline executive. In some sense that might have been a benefit. He was quickly sidelined with heart surgery, but his early moves and his dedication when he returned to work won over many of the carrier’s employees.

He rolled out some of the customer-friendly moves that had been developed under previous leadership, like Polaris, and early wins were Illy coffee and Stroopwafels. However Scott Kirby and Andrew Nocella were brought over from American Airlines and with it came backsliding from a customer experience perspective.

Nothing renews an airline like new planes but absent a giant plane order there always seems to be the thought that the airline can be refreshed by painting planes. However,

  • Painting planes always matters less than airlines think it does.
  • Almost no one reacts positively to changes in livery at least initially.

You do want planes to be painted with the name of the airline after a merger, and there can be paint jobs that feel particularly dated. Nonetheless it’s a years-long process and a costly one to undertake.

Cathay Pacific launched a new livery that basically did no harm. Southwest’s was basically a copy of a British train.

American’s was especially controversial.

  • Almost no one liked it when it was revealed. The airline replaced their unpainted metal look, which wouldn’t have worked on the composite materials of their new 787s.

  • When US Airways management took over they let employees vote and the new livery barely won, though the alternative was closer to the new livery than the old one.

I couldn’t make it to the United event launching their new livery (paint job) today in Chicago, but I’m not sure I would have gone in any case. Aircraft paint jobs just aren’t as big a deal to me as perhaps they should be. I’m glad I didn’t make the commitment, because the new paint job leaked early in any case – making the event pretty anti-climactic.

And since it was out anyway United shared video of it online.

The Continental globe remains on the tail. It also adds some previous United elements,

In another change, the airline is painting its name in blue lettering in much larger letters across the aircraft’s fuselage. It will paint its engines, now gray, in blue.

United is also adding a dark wavy line, below the windows, from the aircraft’s nose to its tail. United introduced a similar line in 2012, in gold, on its Boeing 787s. United has put that gold line on all of its 787s and Boeing 737 Max 9s, but never added it to other aircraft.

Long-time United observers noted on social media and message boards that the new livery shares some similarities with the paint job United used just before its merger. United used a lot of blue in that look, including blue engines.

Ultimately though it’s just an evolution. So for me at least it doesn’t induce a strong reaction at all, which is good. But that leads me to wonder why bother at all?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The paint scheme of the planes seems to me one of the least important parts of the brand. For any frequent flyer, the “backsliding from a customer experience perspective”, as you put it, is top of mind when one thinks of UA these days. I fly them a lot, mainly due to routes and price, but won’t say that service and F&B are anything to look forward to, compared to the EU carriers I also fly. Though I will give them credit for raising their reliability from a few years ago when that was abysmal.

  2. Yep, it’s evolutionary!

    But, actually like it better than current livery even if they keep insisting on keeping the globe on the tail fin instead of restoring United’s much missed, beloved and iconic tulip which would’ve been super cool!

    Yeah, yeah Continental’s globe is there to remind everyone that it’s a global airline that can take us around the world, but unless there’s some sort of cultural faux pas that’s a no-no in one/some of the countries the airline serves posed by the brand’s beloved tulip, it really would be cool for the airline to fully embrace the identity it chose for the post-merger airline, United, in its branding instead of seeking to cling to the branding and trade-marks for the name it abandoned – now nearly a decade ago.

    Just the same, ditching the gold seems consistent with the blues of the cabin interiors of its aircraft, especially for those featuring the new Polaris McMansions…er suites.

    And it seems a little more sophisticated than the old look, even if (and surely I’m dating myself by saying this…hehehe) back in the day legacy Continental’s slogan/tag-line was “the proud bird with the golden tail” which likely suggests the where the inspiration for the now ditched golden globe that was introduced during the Gordon Bethune came from.

  3. Correcting editing errors for the last paragraph in the above:

    “…which likely suggests where the inspiration for the now ditched golden globe that was introduced during the Gordon Bethune era came from.”

  4. I’ll miss the gold with the straight lines and grey underbelly rather than this weird swooshy blue line.

  5. Separately, seeing the two images for American side by side really drives home just how awful – as in full-on ‘fugly’ – the “new” livery is if only because the tail fins are such an eyesore when compared to the simplicity, class and elegance of legacy American’s iconic “AA” accented with its classic eagle.

    Wow! Who knew the dreadful, fugly, muddled mess of the eyesore seen on its tail fins would so perfectly express the dreadful airline that American has become since the junior league team from Tempe, AZ embarked on its mission to destroy this once great airline!

    Here’s hoping that when the (it can’t happen soon enough) banner saying “Under New Management” is hung over the doors of AA’s headquarters that the first thing the new CEO and his/her airline restoration/brand repairing team takes over for the current bush league folks whom have excelled at only one thing, running the airline into the ground with breathtaking perfection of how to destroy a brand that hasn’t been seen so spectacularly (for all the wrong reasons) in the airline industry since Jeff Smisek at United, Frank Lorenzo at every airline he got his greedy paws around, or Carl Icahn, whom after taking over TWA provided a textbook example of how to destroy an airline and get away with it, that the very first thing the new management team does is strip off the vomit inducing fugly of those tail fins and restores the classy, elegant and iconic “AA” and eagle that sends a message to flyers that the days of the run down US Airways-ing at American have come to an end!

    Like I said, THAT can’t happen soon enough!

    And yep, those fugly, eyesores seen on AA’s tail fins really do match the “fuglyness” at an airline that in last week’s released 2019 Annual Airline Quality Ratings had the junior league management team’s efforts coming in 2nd to last in the 9th position – sandwiched BELOW #8 Spirit and only ahead of last place (#10) Frontier.

    Wow – see how far that airline has fallen in the years since those fugly tail fins replaced the grace and beauty of legacy American’s branding and trade-marks?!?!

    Just sayin’ 😉

  6. . Move along folks, nothing here.

    When they do something about the customer experience, I’ll pay attention.

  7. I hope UA didn’t spend a lot of money on that (but I know for a fact they did). REALLY. At least AA and DL created an new image (personally like the new AA eagle but miss the double AA on the tail). United still can’t let go of Continental, the tulip on the tail would have been a perfect return to an iconic brand, but UA, like their service isn’t bold enough to make the jump.

    BTW, Howard, if you’ve ever flown AA or any other airlines you would know that the service levels between AA and DL are narrowing and Oasis is being re-evaluated. Those weren’t Parker policies or decisions, they were Kirby’s and he is running United. . .so expect more positive changes coming to AA. Oh, and if you fly internationally, AA is flying rings around UA and DL now.

  8. Yes, for sure Delta’s narrow-body densifications and especially that rear outboard/left side when facing/crouching/squeezing into it lavatory on (the Airbus A320s flown earlier this month) that most average height/weight adults cannot even turn around in easily are a match for American’s abysmally small, narrow, butt numbing hard, kneecap gnashing “no legroom” seats and AA’s kiddie sized loos that are loathed and reviled by nearly everyone – there’s no disputing that!

    Also, as widely noted in other comments, AA’s (and United’s) 9-abreast Boeing 787s and 10-abreast 777s for economy class bookings are a total deal-breaker when compared to any Airbus A330/A340, with Delta’s 9-abreast 777s which are far and away superior to any of those truly nasty densified Boeing beasts that friends shouldn’t let friends (and other loved ones) ever be forced to endure for any of their 5-15 (or more) hours flights!

    But, the seat-back IFE still trumps the hassle of streaming to one’s own device, which, btw, also allows frees up the handheld device to be used for other things like work related stuff that doesn’t require using a notebook computer.

    In fact, if anything that Delta flight earlier this month using an iPhone that replaced the long ago obsolete Blackberry Q10 I clung to until it was useless for virtually everything except voice calls and its still waaaayyy better than anything seen elsewhere email (where 65 wpm typing was an effortless breeze compared to the much pokier snail pace of the ‘virtual keyboard’ on the new iPhone or its predictive text function that’s often very distracting and disruptive) if only because its keyboard allowed for far zippier typing than I’ve yet to come even half as fast as yet on the iPhone still allowed for one of the most productive 2.5 hours of work ever getting done inflight – and all while being able to have the tv on in the background, which is exactly how things have long been for work mostly done from home, where the tv (mostly news or CNBC) – or music – is on in the background while I’m staring at a screen of some kind either researching and reading information before storing it in files for future use – or in recent years posting to Twitter as well when time permits – or busy typing on a keyboard of some kind writing and editing be it reader comments like this here and elsewhere, or non-published client work.

    So, for me, and as someone who has long loathed low rent, cheap AF streaming to one’s own device entertainment when flying due to the hassle factor of holding the darn thing or keeping it securely in place, Delta’s (or JetBlue’s) seat-back IFE by far out performs AA’s, and increasingly United’s, nasty seat-back IFE-less “entertainment” option by leaps and bounds for convenience, but also because it was a revelation at how much I was able to accomplish using the iPhone while aboard a recent Delta flight!

    I got sooooo much done that I’m already looking forward to my upcoming flights on Delta late next week 😉

    So, apart from hating the hassle of holding an electronic device (an iPad mini or my partner’s iPhone) to watch tv or movies on flights aboard aircraft lacking seat-back monitors, after seeing how productive the iPhone was (even with my pokey typing) on that recent flight, I’d be loathe to have to choose between using my handheld device for work or tv/entertainment when Delta (or JetBlue) lets me have both instead!

    Plus, although its still the lowly bottom, or “silver” rung, Delta’s earlier boarding group and the pleasant surprise of a hand-written thank you note received from a flight attendant on one of my recent Delta flights are nice touches that make Delta #1 in our home – and by far the leading carrier for flights booked for family and close friends when they seek my assistance to plan travel!

    And for the record, Delta does NOT provide compensation of any kind, nor do I directly own/day trade equity/debt in Delta – or any other airline/aerospace OEM for that matter! – for commentary or analysis posted here or elsewhere.

    So, what’s said good or bad is NOT influenced by compensation considerations – including reference regarding Apple’s iPhone in the above!

  9. Lipstick on a pig. Why bother? it makes them look foolish when their customer experience is such a train wreck.

  10. Corporate America seems to be keen to kill visual innovation, or use its assets to visually attract attention these days… Airlines and travelling have always been one of the most aspirational conduits of freedom, adventure, innovation, excitingly dreaming about the unknown… their corporate identity reflected dreams, thrills and the security of good service.
    Looking at this new livery is very disappointing and it reflects the sense of corporate safety that many American companies seek today. It reflects the past, it brings nothing new to the surface. It’s still a very safe merged identity. It’s boring.
    Even American almost lost the battle a few years ago when the new management team almost succeeded in going back on the previous team’s decision to rebrand. US Airways went back on what was a revolutionary livery to its old look.
    Virgin’s best brand assets were quickly killed by Alaska Airlines, leaving no trace of its on board features.
    US airlines and some of the European ones should embrace the concept that looks matter for the traveller. Yes, it’s all about cheap fares these days, but service comes to bite you at the end. Exciting liveries, uniforms that fit and look good on employees, policies on employee grooming, good interiors. Create your own identity and embrace it.
    United’s new identity seems bland, uninspiring and not aspirational.
    It’s a pity for an airline that reaches so many shores and carries so much heritage, and I mean brand heritage.

  11. Haha.. Howard you nailed it with regard to IFE and so on. Good work overall! And you watch CNBC (you probably know my history with financial TV). Anyway I had exactly the same thought on a very typical PVR-ATL Delta A320 flight last month. I was able to utilize my iPhone effectively while having a movie on-screen; and then as we crossed the Border (I’m surprised the satellite geo-blocking has such sensitivity) CNBC became ‘live’ again. More so than others (and you never mention this that I recall; apologies if you have) .. I think Delta has the largest fleet with ‘domestic’ live TV (need that for CNBC, CNN or FOX or even some live sports on the weekend). Also I think Delta has the largest fleet with higher-speed internet transatlantic. I used it flying back from a tech show in Berlin and worked pretty good. Looking forward to Delta One to Barcelona (also during stock market hours) having it. (I know CNBC will be geo-blocked; but I have an alternate way of getting it.) Anyway I concur; although the First Class meal on a 4 hour flight was nothing special; although the FA’s were excellent. So were ground personnel; even in PVR.

  12. Unbelievable!!! What a huge, unnecessary waste of money. Work on the dirty, falling apart, aging interiors of the planes and most of all, IMPROVE CUSTOMER SERVICE!!!! Stop taking away and “nickeling and diming” your loyal United customers!!!

  13. This isn’t a cool sports car….ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!! Wake me when they do something that is customer relevant like maybe giving an inch or 2 in pitch

  14. All the globe does is remind me that United took a far superior airline — Continental — pillaged it and continues to offer a downward spiral of service.

  15. @Cassandra – the post-merger leadership majority came from CO, and that’s what caused the downward spiral. Remember Smisek, Rainey, and all those cronies? #FactsMatter

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