A visual history of the United Airlines livery

United Airlines Boeing 787-8 livery

The United Airlines livery has always been iconic and trend-setting, and to this day I still cannot decide which one I like the best. Part of me is drawn to the Saul Bass livery of the 1970’s. Another part still has a thing for the Battleship Gray design from the 1990’s. At the rate that I’m going, I may never be able to declare one the winner over another.

My goal for this post is to document all the liveries of United Airlines as fast as I can illustrate them. One thing that you’ll notice right off the bat is that there is definitely a “United” style which shines through in each of the liveries. Let’s have a look:

The blue and white wedge livery: 1957-1963

The livery that launched United Airlines into the jet age was the iconic blue and white design (which was unveiled in 1957). It was a relatively simple livery, featuring an all-white top and a blue cheatline that ran the length of the fuselage and through the windows.

United Airlines Boeing 727-200 Illustration
The simple (but beautiful) wedge livery over top of my Boeing 727-200 template. I really like how the white top section swoops down into the nose section – which is very similar to what the Pan Am livery looked like at the time.

The vertical stabilizer featured a slim blue and red “wedge” graphic, which was divided by large “United” titles in a thick serif font. Note that there were several versions of this livery over the years, featuring different thicknesses of the red stripe as well as a completely different typeface for the United’s titles.

Friend Ship livery with four stars: 1972-1974

This was an evolution of the wedge livery. It featured a thicker red stripe, four blue stars on both the vertical stabilizer and fuselage (near the titles), and a modified “United” typeface. This was the last United livery before the iconic Saul Bass design was unveiled in 1974.

original United Friend Ship livery
The original United Friend Ship livery as shown on my Boeing 747-100 template

The United Airlines Saul Bass livery: 1974-1993

Immediately after completing my McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 template, I chose the United Airlines Saul Bass livery as one of my first painted versions of it. This color scheme, combined with this aircraft, is pretty much exactly what I think of when I think of “United Airlines” to this day.

United Airlines DC-10-30 side view drawing
United Airlines DC-10-30 in the Saul Bass livery

Personally, I think this is a great livery. The cheat line is so 1970’s and 80′s, and the colors are borderline tacky by today’s standards. But that’s what makes it so great! It’s iconic, highly representative of it’s time, and it helped build a strong identity for one of the largest airlines in the world. It’s a significant part of Untied Airlines history.

On a side note, there were two versions of this livery. As you can see below, the first version featured smaller “UNITED” titles with the cheat line higher on the fuselage. Later, the cheat line was lowered to allow for larger titles:

united airlines Saul Bass livery differences comparison
Here is a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the Saul Bass livery on my Boeing 787-8 template. Be sure to check out my post about the Saul Bass United Airlines 787 to see these images in higher resolution.

United Airlines Battleship Gray livery: 1993-2004

The gray color scheme (better known as the “Battleship Gray” livery) was a complete and total departure from the Saul Baus design that preceded it. Most notably, it took on a dark and almost sinister look compared to that bright and colorful scheme that was synonymous with the brand for decades. This was bold new direction for United.

United Airlines battleship gray livery Boeing 777-200
United Airlines Battleship Gray livery on the Boeing 777-200

Unfortunately, we all saw what happened to this dark livery after years of of being exposed to blazing sunshine. Some of the aircraft wearing these colors had faded horribly and looked downright bad, with dull and peeling paint that even made me think twice about boarding one of those tired birds.

Pentagram swooped in for the rescue in 1998, with their new blue and white update featuring brighter colors and a (shocking) departure from the traditional blue/orange/red color treatments that had become synonymous with the United brand.

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The United Airlines Blue Tulip livery: 2004-2010

Designed by Pentagram and introduced in 1998, this blue and white United Airlines livery was a refreshing departure from the dull and drab “Battleship Gray” livery that preceded it. It was unveiled at a time when UA was still making money and had not yet entered bankruptcy, so I disliked the fact that it didn’t seem to have the rich sophistication of those dark and rich colors they were replacing.

United 777-200 blue tulip livery
The United Airlines Boeing 777-200 in the blue Tulip livery

I guess I sort of saw United as the global airline at that time, and going to an Euro-white color scheme with bright (almost obnoxious) blue accent colors didn’t seem to fit my high mental perception of the airline.

united express emb-120
It even looks good on little airplanes like this EMB-120 too!

The United / Continental livery: 2010-2019

This is the livery that resulted in the merger of United and Continental in May of 2010. In my opinion, both United and Continental missed a great opportunity to pay tribute to the United brand and evolve the tulip design forward into the future. Instead, we got the entirety of the old Continental Airlines livery with United titles plastered on the front.

United Airlines 747-400 illustration
United Airlines 747-400 in the old Continental “Globe” livery

While I’m sure they saved a ton of money by re-using this livery, the new company was essentially reborn at that time and it would have been the perfect opportunity to press the “reset” button on their brand image and come up with something new and unrelated to those old and tired corporations.

Both of which, by the way, desperately needed to shed years of bad publicity (bankruptcy, poor service, etc) and emerge as a fresh new brand. Why they chose to save a few dollars and stick with the old look is beyond me.

That said, I actually don’t mind this livery all that much. The straight horizontal cheat line through the center of the fuselage is somewhat dated, but the light colors compliment the vivid blue and gold in the logo nicely.

The “wavy” version of the Continental livery:

There was a modified (“wavy”) version of the Continental livery that was only used on the Boeing 787 and 737 MAX. In my opinion, this livery seemed like such an afterthought. They created it to help celebrate the significance of the aircraft it was painted on, but it was disappointing to me that they didn’t modify the tail graphics to integrate with the “wave” elements.

United 787-8 illustration
My United 787-8 illustration showing the special livery (which they eventually used as inspiration for an all new United livery in 2019).

Despite not being a very big fan of it at first, I grew to like it. The gold stripe flows from the front of the aircraft very nicely from front to back, with really nice tension and weight. And if you look really closely, you’ll notice that the thickness of that gold stripe goes from thin to thick as it moves along the length of the fuselage.

United Airlines Boeing 737-9 MAX old livery
This is what this livery looks like on the Boeing 737-9 MAX. On first glance it looks very similar to the way it was painted on the 787. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the thickness of the gold stripe doesn’t change all that much as it moves from front to rear.

They did a really good job there. But (there’s always a “but”) why on earth didn’t they flow that gold ribbon into the tail? It wouldn’t have worked well with the globe logo, but this livery was such a drastic change from the existing one anyway so I don’t know why they didn’t do anything with the tail. We may never know…

The new United livery: 2019-present

The all new United livery was such a big announcement that I gave it it’s own dedicated post. Head on over there to read all about how (and why) it came to be…

United Airlines Special liveries

United Airlines has never been known to paint their aircraft in special liveries, but it happens from time to time. Here is a partial list of some of the more significant special paint schemes:

Star Alliance livery

I’ve never been a big fan of the white and black Star Alliance livery, mostly because I think they are too plain and unimaginative. My perception has changed slightly after applying it to my 777-200 blank illustration template – primarily because it was necessary to really study this design (more than I ever have in the past) and I started to see details that I never saw before.

United Star Alliance 777-200 illustration
The United Airlines Boeing 777-200 in the Star Alliance livery

First, I think the Star Alliance font is simply beautiful. It’s the perfect weight and thickness for a billboard-style use such as this, and it’s san serif style oozes class and professionalism. Second, the Star Alliance logo is well-crafted.

Yes, I’ve seen it a million times before, but it wasn’t until I recreated it myself for this illustration that I realized how elegant it really is. The subtle gradient and silver tones really pop against the black tail color.

This particular United / Star Alliance livery was based on the 1998 United color scheme designed by Pentagram (in the section above), so that’s the reason for the blue engines (which would otherwise look out of place if it weren’t for that relationship).

On a side note, I think it would be interesting if the Star Alliance liveries had a lot more silver and black in them. The white fuselage is clean and simple, yet oh-so-boring. These are special liveries after all, so I think they should have went all-out and done something really different. Perhaps a silver fuselage with a black tail? I know, that’s probably too similar to the SkyTeam special liveries – but it is really sharp.

The “One Hundred” livery

This particular illustration depicts a very special aircraft in the UA fleet. It’s the “One Hundred” airframe, meaning that it was dedicated to 100 exceptional employees (as voted by their peers) who went above and beyond. The markings for this are subtle, with a small decal next to the main titles on the fuselage, as well as a plaque mounted inside that is visible upon boarding.

United Airlines 737-900 "One Hundred"
A subtle special livery indeed, and it was only used on this particular Boeing 737-900/ER

The 747-400 “Friend Ship” retirement livery

Prior to the retirement of the 747 in late 2017, United payed tribute to the queen of the skies by applying nostalgic “Friend Ship” titles to two of the remaining 747-400’s. This livery was short-lived, as it was only applied just several months before the retirement. It’s a shame they didn’t do it sooner!

United Airlines 747-400 Friend Ship livery
The United Airlines 747-400 “Friend Ship” livery

Comments (8)

  1. Mike

    July 13, 2016
    • Norebbo

      July 13, 2016
  2. Alan

    February 11, 2021
    • Norebbo

      February 12, 2021
  3. Alan

    February 12, 2021
    • Norebbo

      February 16, 2021
  4. Mel

    May 30, 2021
    • Norebbo

      May 30, 2021

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