Logo Evolution: Top 10 U.S. Airlines

I had so much fun putting together my logo evolution post on fast food burger chains, I decided to do it again. So for this little logo gallery, I took a look at the U.S. airline industry, and put together a countdown of the top 10 domestic carriers. These rankings are based on 2012 passenger totals, obtained here. Those who have been keeping up with the news already know that at least one of these airlines is going away fairly soon, so perhaps I’ll update this in 2014.

If anyone spots bad information or can provide me with better logos, use the contact form up top and let me know.

#1. Delta Air Lines (est. 1924)

Fly Delta Jets sign

(via gtwreck98)

Delta has has an unusually high number of logos since their founding as the Delta Air Service in 1928. Making things even more confusing is that in any given year, the company employed several variants on their logos depending on the purpose. In other words, the dates offered here are more general guidelines than anything else. What is certain is that Delta’s familiar red, white, and blue triangle widget logo first appeared in 1959 and has been in use — in one form or another — since then.

#2. United Airlines (est. 1926)

United Air Lines 1952

United, on the other hand, is much simpler to track. All you need to know is that from the late 1930s until the company’s merger with Continental in 2010, there were just two main logos — the “tulip” and the red, white, and blue shield. The first shield logo seems to have made its debut in 1938, after several years with more text-based designs. United tinkered with the layout over the next few decades but really only strayed from it with the introduction of the plane wing design around 1969.

In 1974 United unveiled a whole new identity, led by the so-called tulip logo designed by the legendary Saul Bass. It became one of the most recognizable brands in the world and lasted until May 2010, when United and Continental Airlines agreed to merge operations.

As with Delta, the dates on here should not be taken as set in stone.

#3. Southwest Airlines (est. 1967)

Southwest Airlines jets

(via denverpost.com)

Although Southwest was founded in 1967, legal battles with other carriers meant that it did not begin operations until 1971.

#4. American Airlines (est. 1934)

American Airlines (est. 1934) flag logo

Another icon of aviation from the 1930s, American has had an extremely stable branding strategy since its founding. The eagle on their logo remained largely unchanged until the late ’60s, and after a pretty bold modernization remained the same for 35 years. I hate the 2013 update, but what can you do?

American is set to merge with US Airways, and will keep their name after it’s done. I don’t know yet if a new logo will be rolled out, but it seems unlikely.

#5. US Airways (est. 1949)

Allegheny Commuter/USAir logos

The company known currently — but not for long — as US Airways traces its roots back to 1937, when Pittsburgh-based All American Aviation was founded. Passenger service began in 1949, when the company was renamed to All American Airways. That only lasted for three years, when Allegheny Airlines was born. Allegheny operated from 1952 to 1979, when the company looked to expand its service to the entire country and changed their name accordingly to USAir.

As of this posting, US Airways is in the process of completing a merger with American Airlines to create the world’s largest airline. The merger is expected to complete during Q3 2013, relegating the USAir/US Airways brand to history.

#6. JetBlue (est. 1998)

The youngest carrier on this list, JetBlue began operations on February 11, 2000, with service to Buffalo and Ft. Lauderdale. There really isn’t much to say about their logo history, given that this is pretty much it:

JetBlue Airways logo

And that’s about it. There is a variant of this logo with the “Airways” wordmark included, but the one seen here is usually used in marketing.

#7. Alaska Airlines (est. 1932)

Alaska Airlines Eskimo logo jets

Alaska Airlines’ roots go back to several different services starting in 1932, when Linious “Mac” McGee started McGee Airways in 1932. McGee sold his airline to Star Air Service a few years later, which was in turn purchased in 1941. It was renamed Alaska Star Airlines, and adopted the Alaska Airlines name in 1944.

Included in this slideshow is the logo for Alaska’s Golden Nugget Service, which was available in the ’50s and ’60s aboard their DC-6 planes. The service included included an on-board saloon and piano. You’ll also see the airline’s iconic Eskimo face logo, informally known as Chester, which has adorned the fleet’s tail fins almost continuously sine 1973. Most sources I’ve read claim that he is an Inupiat named Oliver Amouak.

#8. Frontier Airlines (est. 1994)

Denver-based Frontier Airlines, just to give you an idea of scale, is #8 on this list but carried about a tenth of the passengers Delta did in 2012. Not bad for being less than a decade old as of this initial posting. Note that this is not the same Frontier as the one which operated from 1950 until it was purchased and ultimately shut down in 1986/87. The new Frontier, however, was started by several executives from the first incarnation.

For the first nine years of Frontier’s existence they used the slogan “The Spirit of the West,” with this logo:

Frontier Airlines logo (1994-2003)

In 2003 the company adopted a more streamlined look and logo.

Frontier Airlines logo (2003-present)

#9. Spirit Airlines (est. 1980)

Spirit was founded in 1980 as Charter One, a Detroit-based charter tour operator providing travel packages to entertainment destinations such as Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and the Bahamas. In 1992, Charter One brought jet equipment into the fleet, changed its name to Spirit Airlines, and inaugurated service from Detroit to Atlantic City. The airline is currently based out of Miramar, Florida.

Here are the two logos Spirit has used since 1992. The original one utilized an interesting gradient block effect, but was simplified greatly in 2007.

Spirit Airlines logo (1992-2007)

Spirit Airlines logo (2007-present)

#10. Hawaiian Airlines (est. 1929)

Hawaiian Airlines plane, c. 1950s

Hawaiian began in 1929 as Inter-Island Airways, which changed its name in October 1941. The Inter-Island typeface changed a few times, but the flying shield logo lasted through the name change and into the 1950s. The famous Pualani (“flower of the sky”) logo debuted in 1973, when the company started branding itself as Hawaiian Air. It received an update 2001 but has essentially been in use for four decades at this point.

A debt of gratitude is owed to the following sites, which all contain a treasure trove of information and images on just about any airline you can think of: Airchive, Airline Timetable Images, and AirTimes. It’s doubtful that this post would’ve been half as good without all the legwork they have already done.