Emily Kame Kngwarreye 787–9 after a delivery flight to Alice Springs; Photo by Qantas

Folklore in airline design

The role of an airline as a promotor of traditional values and national legacy

Branko Šabarić
9 min readFeb 27, 2018

Traditional values have always been a matter of pride and self-determination. People are proud of their heritage and that is always a good asset to promote around the world through one of the most exposed subjects that a country can provide — an airline company.

In many cases legacy carriers are painted in national colours. Clean and simple. But sometimes an airline can go an extra mile and put additional makeup or to dress entire fleet in the traditional attire.

Australian torchbearers

Qantas recently introduced their new livery honouring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians on its latest Boeing 787–9 Dreamliner. The new livery features the work of the late Northern Territory artist and senior Anmatyerre woman, Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

Update: The aircraft touched down in Alice Springs in the early morning on March 2, 2018, following a 13.000 km journey from Boeing’s Seattle facility. It was welcomed by members of Emily’s family and local community members. Registered as VH-ZND it will fly several domestic services for crew familiarisation before it enters service on international routes in late March.

Emily Kame Kngwareye and details from her painting ‘Yam Dreaming’, 1991; Photos by Qantas and Campbelltown City Council Permanent Collection

It is based on her 1991 painting, Yam Dreaming. The design was imagined by a leading indigenous owned design studio Balarinji. With some 5000 dots on the aircraft a team of more than 60 graphic designers, engineers and painters at Boeing’s Seattle facility worked with Balarinji to install the design onto the aircraft, taking more than ten days to complete.

The artwork depicts the culturally significant yam plant, an important symbol in Emily’s artwork and an important food source in her home region of Utopia, 230 km north-east of Alice Springs.

The aircraft itself will be named Emily Kame Kngwarreye in tribute to the artist. Iconic flying kangaroo on the aircraft tail fin has been changed to embed into the design, with the airline’s trademark red tail colour altered to match the earthy red tones and white dots of Emily’s artwork. And it wasn’t for the first time.

Nalanji Dreaming (front) and Wunala Dreaming (back); Photo by Qantas

Qantas is probably the most renown airline to promote this kind of homage to indigenous population and showing pride of their heritage. In cooperation with Balarinji they’ve done it four times actually. Probably the most famous were jumbo sized 747–400’s named Wunala and Nalanji Dreaming. It was a striking display of shapes and colours and even today unforgettable sight. Wunala means kangaroro, in the Yanyuwa language spoken by families in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. It celebrated the ceremony tracks of the kangaroo spirit ancestors and the continuation of all living things in the harmony of nature. Wunala Dreaming livery was in use from 1994 to 2003. Nalanji means ‘Our Place’ and was a celebration of the balance of nature in Australia and reflected the lush colour palette of tropical Australia. Nalanji Dreaming was used from 1995 to 2005.

A few years later, a single aisle 737–800’s was used as a canvas. In 2002 the company launched Yananyi Dreaming, inspired by the work of Rene Kulitja who painted her dramatic country surrounding Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock — a massive sandstone monolith in the heart of the Northern Territory. The design shows pathways leading to the symbol of Uluru, illustrated as both a physical form, and as an abstract representation of concentric circles.

Mendoowoorrji 737; Photo by Qantas

And in 2013 Mendoowoorrji was introduced. It was inspired by the work of the late West Australian Gidja painter, Paddy Bedford and is an interpretation of the 2005 painting ‘Medicine Pocket’ which captures the essence of Bedford’s mother’s country in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. It remains in the Qantas’ fleet even today. And now joined by Yam Dreaming the company continues to uphold the legacy of country’s strong traditional values.

Celebrating traditions

Another country proud of their heritage is Mexico. Its flag carrier Aeromexico is wearing a symbol of an Aztec Eagle warrior since the company was founded. With the introduction of the first 787–9 to their fleet, the company ordered a special livery that boldly celebrates Mesoamerican legacy.

Named Quetzalcóatl, meaning “Feathered Serpent”, is a representation of an ancient deity and was result of a competition won by José Manuel Escudero. Even though named after livery’s greatest feature the design actually displays 21 symbols that represent Mexico, referencing to Totonac, Mayan, Aztec and Olmec civilisations. It was also inspired by countries’ crafts and traditional costumes and took nine days to paint.

Asian and especially Chinese tradition is often depicted with floral and scenes from the nature. One of the most common themes include blossoming, and the most famous of them is the peony tree. It has been chosen by the Qing dynasty in 1903 as a national flower. Even though in today’s China there is no legally designated national flower, in 2008 Air China started to use peony blossom as an ornament to update its old-fashion (and blank) livery. Numerous 737’s, A320’s and A330’s were painted in different colours — all representing beautiful peony tree blossom. The company used the theme one more time probably in promoting the Hubei region and painting an A320 in a plum blossom livery called Beautiful Hubei.

Painting an airline from the ground up

To some airlines special liveries are the way to promote the cultural heritage of their domicile country. Their branding is a well known symbol that associates instantly and these experiments are a nice way to grab more attention from a usual sight. But some airlines choose to utilise their branding fully to represent their ethnic roots. Probably the most famous of those case studies is rebranding of Fijian Air Pacific into Fiji Airways. The company actually reverted to the old name that was last used in 1951. The idea was articulated by Futurebrand Australia but entire concept was created by a local artist Makereta Matmosi and based on traditional Masi artwork.

Makereta Matemosi and her’s artwork; Photo by Fiji Airways

At the centre of the new Masi symbol is a distinctive Teteva motif, which symbolises the airline, its values, and the spirit of Fiji. This Teteva was designed to represent spirituality, consideration of others, Fijian hospitality, and the connection that the company will offer between Fiji’s 333 islands and the rest of the world. The big circle has four crosses at four corners which indicate interconnection. The inner circle reflects the spiritual values of the Fijian people — denoting the culture of caring and looking after each other as a community. The middle section of the Masi with sixteen petal shapes reflects people working hand-in-hand to create a stronger nation. And the innermost part is the diamond, which is the most important part as it represents the love that the airline has for Fiji and all the customers it is privileged to serve, the company explains.

Fijian Masi artwork; Image by Fiji Airways

In addition to the Teteva, Fiji Airways incorporated other elements of Fijian Masi art into the redesign. On the aircraft engine the Rova symbol is applied, symbolising the warm greeting Fijians extend to visitors. Makare motif surrounds the border of the Teteva on the tail and evokes the allure of clear water flowing on a white sandy beach. And many more symbols are conveying these messages: lining the seats with Kaso (representing villagers, farmers, fisherman and carpenters), decorating the uniforms with Qalitoka (representing a unity of people to one mind set), Tama (friendly service) and Droe (clear blue sky and cool breezes on the beach) motifs while website is embroidered with Kaova, representing exploration of an island.

Entire branding marked an important milestone in company’s history as it started complete fleet overhaul, replacing their ageing 747’s with three A330 aircraft delivered in new colours.

Another example of going back to its roots can be found in colours of several Pacific airlines, mostly flying local routes. One of them is PNG Air, rebranded from Airlines PNG by Principals Group in 2015. The occasion was also encompassing delivery of a brand new ATR 72–600 aircraft. New branding was envisioned to represent people and culture of Papua New Guinea and is based on a pattern of important cultural icons of the country.

Introducing a new service, Hawaiian Airlines launched ‘Ohana By Hawaiian in 2013. The company painted ATR 42–500 aircraft with a new livery designed by Hilo-based artist Sig Zane and his son Kūha’o. The name ‘Ohana is the Hawaiian word for family and the design pattern was designed based on the inter-island route map, incorporating three kapa patterns: piko (representing ancestor and progeny), manu (representing both a bird in flight and the prow of a canoe) and kalo (representing family). “We celebrate their art and recognise all who have traveled before us,” Zane said. “This symbol of our heritage is now a cherished piece for everyone to see.” It is one of the most beautiful liveries today blending nicely into fresh Hawaiian Airlines identity.

Up in North Eastern Canada, a small regional airline Air Inuit provides passenger, charter, cargo and emergency air transport services in Nunavik and Nunavut, Northern Québec. This airline is not only expressing its roots through strong visuals but is actually collectively owned by the Inuit of Nunavik. As a part of modernisation the company hired Montreal based agency Feed to rebuild its branding. They conducted a comprehensive brand audit in close consultation with the community members and Inuit culture and language experts from the Avataq Cultural Institute.

As a result they created the orange and white goose design to reflect the Inuit’s love and respect of nature. The artwork was inspired by works of M. C. Escher and as a homage to an old tradition of Inuit arts and crafts.

In addition to a new logo and a livery, Feed also developed an original typeface named Air Inuit Sans, in cooperation with French typeface designer Jean-Baptiste Levée. The new font features subtle rounded edges which suggest design cues found in Inuktitut syllabics. It is one of a handful of typefaces in the world used to write the Inuktitut language and one of the first specifically designed to give roman glyphs and their syllabic equivalent a look and feel that is common to both.

British World Images

At the end let me share an interesting story about the company who decided to share the world heritage. In 1997 British Airways adopted a new livery designed by the London-based design agency Newell and Sorrell. Following this design and in order to make the branding more cosmopolitan the company introduced various tail-fin designs known as Utopia or World Images.

The intention was not to promote solely British cultural heritage but to represent countries on BA’s route network. And going back to the beginning of this article, BA used the same design that Balarinji studio produced for Qantas to paint a few of their own aircraft. Nelanji and Wunala Dreaming were “living on borrowed time” within the British fleet, which have never looked more colourful and rich.

And boy was it rich: representing not only ancient Aboriginal art but the likes of Ncoakhoe people of Kalahari Desert, Highlands of Scotland, Swedish folk motifs, English pottery…

…and more: Celtic art, modern Egyptian decorations, Dutch blue and white motifs from Delft, Russian floral themes, English canal boat art, Polish folk art, art of Ndebele people of South Africa, textile art from India, ancient Chinese calligraphy, Romanian folk decorations, traditional Japanese paintings, woodcarvings of Tla O Qui Aht people of Canada, Arabian traditional arts… and a few more. The full list is quite extensive.

But it grew unpopular with many customers, claiming that the company abandoned the national flag (even though representing England, Scotland and Wales). Margaret Thatcher famously covered the tail-fin of a scale model with a handkerchief from her handbag, saying: “We fly the British flag, not these awful things”. And the move was not only criticised by public opinion. Quite often it caused confusion among ATC staff who had difficulty recognising BA aircraft on the ground to give taxi instructions. The whole endeavour costed £60M and in the end was replaced by the traditional Union flag design in 2001.

Flying is a marvel of today’s world and tradition is translated into it as well. Some airlines like to express their pride of cultural heritage through their public image, and some like to wear the world’s heritage on their tails. Whichever it is, tradition is what inspires and enriches strong visuals that represent modern airlines. And even though branding they choose today is shifting towards minimal and “clean” look, for most of them their heritage is still the main inspiration. And for some it is the essence of their way of life.