Braniff International and The End of the Plain Plane

I’m delighted to introduce a guest post by transport consultant Rory Maxwell, on a topic for which The Beauty of Transport has had a few requests. Over to Rory then, for the story of one of American aviation’s most famous branding (or rather, branding and re-branding) exercises.

It’s 1964 and corporate America has embarked on the conglomerate boom that will take until the 1990s to unwind. Driven by this frenzy to diversify into any number of unrelated industries, Troy Victor Post’s Greatamerica Corporation, an insurer, buys National Car Rental and Braniff International Airways, a sleepy carrier providing service on north-south corridors in the middle of the USA and into Latin America.

From that moment onwards, Greatamerica’s backing acts as a catalyst that combines regulation, personalities, paranoia and deregulation to drive an ambitious and aggressive program of transport design projects that would transform the airline and transcend industrial boundaries to become part of popular culture, shining brightly for scarcely more than a decade, before burning out.

Model of a 707 in “El Dorado Superjet” livery. Photo by A. Davey [CC BY 2.0] via this Flickr page

US Airline Regulation

Prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) controlled almost all aspects of inter-state air travel with the USA. The number of airlines operating on any given route was limited and fares were set by the CAB. Even by 1964, the CAB was only just becoming comfortable with coach (economy) passengers travelling on the same aircraft as first class passengers, previously mandating that coach fares could only be offered on older aircraft and only where it could be demonstrated that the service would attract new customers and not cannibalise the existing, first class, business.

The CAB’s route award process was seen as slow, opaque and, frequently, influenced by politics and the interests of certain airlines, notably Pan American (Pan Am). Well before being purchased by Greatamerica, Braniff had become distrustful of the CAB; in 1947 the company was, effectively, stripped of a Mexican affiliate founded in 1943, following pressure from Pan Am – it would take until 1960 before Braniff resumed service to Mexico.

With fares and frequencies set by the CAB, competition among airlines was limited to speed, crew “friendliness” and marketing.

In this regulatory environment, Greatamerica lured an executive named Harding Lawrence away from Continental Airlines and empowered him to modernise Braniff.

Marketing is the Solution

The scope for advantage on the basis of speed was, by 1964, largely exhausted. Competition had driven the ruinously expensive rapid turnover of fleets, from the large post-war piston craft, like the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-6, to early turboprops, such as Lockheed’s Electra, before the arrival of the DC8 and Boeing 707 jets rendered them obsolete, often with only a few years of front-line service. TWA’s attempt to push service speeds still further, through the Convair 880 project, had driven General Dynamics to the largest financial losses in corporate history and the supersonic programmes were still some way off.

Featuring 707s and 720s from Boeing and BAC 1-11s, Braniff’s fleet was already 50% jet-powered, with their final piston and turboprop services only a few years away, Lawrence decided that Braniff would grow its market share by modernising its image and marketing, rather than its equipment. To this end, Lawrence hired the advertising agency Jack Tinker and Partners who, in turn, assigned the account to Mary Wells. As an aside, Wells would go on to marry Lawrence in 1967 and is widely believed to be the basis for the character of Peggy Olson in TV series Mad Men.

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Mary Wells and Harding Lawrence at home in New York, January 1968. Photo copyright Getty Images

The End of the Plain Plane

By today’s standards, the pace of what happened next seems remarkable. Wells described Braniff’s existing corporate image, known as “El Dorado Superjet” as “staid”, though it was probably gaudier than many of its contemporaries. To replace it, Wells formulated a marketing campaign entitled “The End of The Plain Plane”, to be backed by a complete re-imagining of Braniff’s image. To deliver this, Wells hired Beth Levine (a shoe designer), Emilio Pucci (by then, already acclaimed as a fashion designer) and Alexander Giraud (a New Mexico architect).

Giraud then redesigned a total of 17,543 public contact and corporate items for Braniff, from aircraft liveries downwards, including 57 fabrics from Herman Miller, often used on furniture designed by Eames.

DC8 in Giraud’s original solid colour scheme with white tail and wings. Photo by RuthAS / CC BY

In 1965 Giraud unveiled the new aircraft liveries. The wings and tails were painted white, in deference to Braniff’s “Vega” colour scheme of the 1930s, but the fuselage treatment was like nothing ever seen before – a variety of solid colours with “Braniff International” titles in italic capitals running the length of the plane. Initially, Giraud wanted to paint each plane a different colour, but, following howls of protest from the engineering team, he settled on eight “jellybean” colours: beige, ochre, orange, turquoise, baby blue, medium blue, lemon and lavender (which seems to be referred to as periwinkle blue by some sources).

727 in Giraud’s original “Lemon Jellybean” solid colour scheme with white tail and wings. Photo © George Hamlin, via this Flickr page

 

BAC1-11 in Giraud’s original solid colour scheme with white tail and wings. Photo by Aero Icarus [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this Flickr page

At the same time, Pucci revealed his new wardrobe for stewardesses. Dubbed “Gemini IV” and inspired by the space programme, the uniforms featured “rain dome” hats and a different outfit for each segment of the flight, which stewardesses would reveal during coordinated “air strips”.

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Stewardesses Linda Krumme and Sue McNeil at Newark Airport in versions of the “Gemini IV” uniform. Photo copyright Getty Images

Relentless change

Adopting a cadence more familiar to seasonal fashion collections than corporate brands, Braniff’s refinement and enhancement of the overall concept was continuous and started almost immediately. A month after launch, the lavender colour scheme was dropped, due to its association with the death moth in Mexican culture. Before the end of 1965, industrial designers Harper and George had been hired to start refreshing the original solid aircraft colours.

727 at Newark Airport in bright red, one of Harper & George’s updated versions of the solid colour scheme. Photo © George Hamlin via this Flickr page, used with permission

In 1966 Pucci unveiled a second wardrobe for the flight crew, named “Supersonic Derby”. While this collection dispensed with the rain domes, it did introduce jumpsuits and Derby hats in lurid geometric prints.

Braniff stewardesses in two versions of Pucci’s “Supersonic Derby” uniform. Photo by Kristine [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this Flickr page

Braniff’s network expanded significantly in 1967 when it managed to purchase South American carrier Pan American Grace (Panagra) for not much more that the value of the deposits they had paid for recently ordered DC8s.  1968 was another big year, with the opening of Braniff’s “Terminal of The Future” at Dallas Love Field, featuring the liberal use of Eames furniture and Giraud prints. Braniff also ordered two 747s from Boeing and unveiled Pucci’s third uniform – “Classic Collection”. Meanwhile, the earlier “Gemini IV” uniform collection was being reproduced by Mattel as accessories for Barbie. In the background, things were also changing, as Troy Post sold Greatamerica to a larger conglomerate, Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV).

In 1970 Braniff introduced its first 747, the 100th example built, in a pumpkin orange version of the colour scheme, this was accompanied by the launch of a fourth uniform collection from Pucci – “747 Braniff Pant Dress”. The Braniff JetRail also commenced service at Love Field, as the first ever automated monorail connecting an airport terminal to remote parking. At the same time, Braniff’s historic enmity with the CAB was refreshed when the latter failed to award trans-Pacific route authorities Braniff had expected, leading the airline to exchange its second 747 delivery for additional 727s.

707 in a later, lime green, iteration of the solid colour scheme. By now, the white wings and engines had been dropped. Photo by RuthAS / CC BY

Further developments came in 1971, with a fleet standardisation plan which called for 727s on domestic service, DC8s for South America and the 747 for Hawaii. A refreshed paint scheme was also introduced, designed by Harper and George, which maintained the variety of colours, but each aircraft now featured two tones on the fuselage, natural metal wings and a revised tail logo. At this point, Braniff also reverted to being a standalone company, being divested by an increasingly troubled LTV.

727 in Harper & George’s two-tone livery. Photo by clipperarctic / CC BY-SA

 

DC8 in Harper & George’s two-tone livery at New York’s JFK Airport. Photo © George Hamlin via this Flickr page, used with permission

From 1973, Braniff began a collaboration with renowned artist, Alexander Calder.

DC8 in Alexander Calder’s “flying Colours of South America” scheme. Photo: No machine-readable author provided. RuthAS assumed (based on copyright claims). / CC BY

Calder repainted a DC8 in a custom “Flying Colours of South America” scheme, this was followed by a “Flying Colours of the United States” scheme for a 727, to coincide with the Bicentennial of the USA in 1976. Calder was working on a “Salute to Mexico” scheme when he died in 1975.

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Alexander Calder with his model for “Flying Colours of the United States” livery. Photo copyright Getty Images

Only a few years after opening the Terminal of The Future and Jet Rail at Love Field, Braniff moved its entire Dallas operation to a dedicated terminal at the new Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) airport. The move coincided with the introduction of “Pucci Classic”, his fourth and final uniform collection.

Enter Halston and “Ultra”

“Perseus Green” DC8 landing at Miami. Photo © Lewis Grant, used with permission, via this Flickr page

The apex of the “End of The Plain Plane” program was reached across 1977 and ‘78. The “Ultra” corporate image was unveiled which repainted the aircraft in high-gloss colours, blank tails, a cursive logo and contrast cheat lines around the tail and engine nacelles. Again, the scheme was introduced with eight original tones: terracotta, light corvette blue, chocolate brown, perseus green, mercury blue, metallic blue, burgundy and sparkling burgundy.

A selection of 727s in Ultra colour schemes. Photo © George Hamlin via this Flickr page, used with permission

For new uniforms, Braniff turned to Roy Halston, then the most influential New York fashion designer. Halston had risen to prominence as a milliner, designing the hat worn by Jaqueline Kennedy at JFK’s inauguration. Later, Halston designed the dress Mary Wells wore when she married Harding Lawrence and went on to dress many of the regulars at New York nightclub Studio 54. Sadly, a disagreement with an investor over his brand name, followed by premature death during the AIDS epidemic saw Halston eclipsed by contemporaries Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

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Halston at Studio 54 with Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Betty Ford. Photo copyright Getty Images

The Braniff “Ultra Touch” uniform collection featured garments in bone, tan and taupe, often using ultrasuede fabrics. To match, the aircraft seats were re-upholstered in brown Argentinian leather. Halston also designed overalls and protective clothing for baggage handlers and other Braniff ground crew. The entire identity was unveiled throughout a three day party in Acapulco during February of 1977, attended by Mary Wells, Harding Lawrence and former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson.

Halston pictured with a variety of Braniff stewards and stewardesses in his “Ultra Touch” uniforms and new first class seat. Photo: assumed Braniff International promotional material.

In 1978, Braniff began 747 service between DFW and London Gatwick. The airline also opened an expansive new headquarters building and commenced a Concorde interchange service – when British Airways Concordes from Heathrow arrived at Washington Dulles, the UK registration was covered with a US registration sticker and Braniff crews flew the aircraft on to DFW, and back, at subsonic speeds, allowing both BA and Braniff to offer same-plane supersonic service between Dallas and London. A similar arrangement was made with Air France for service to Paris. Though there are images floating around of a Braniff Concorde, it’s only an artist’s impression and was never applied to an aircraft before the service ended in 1979.

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Artist’s impression of Concorde in a Braniff livery, used for promotional purposes. Photo copyright Getty Images

As 1978 drew to a close, airline deregulation became a reality, accompanied by Braniff’s self-immolating response.

The 747 Problem

It may be worth pausing the tale here to discuss Braniff’s relationship with the 747, which was contrary in both business and design terms.

Initially, Braniff resisted the rush to acquire 747s as an essential flagship for marketing purposes that saw all the other large US airlines order them and then fly them, half-empty, around their domestic networks. American and Delta both took delivery of early-build 747-100s then disposed of them as soon as possible, four years after delivery in Delta’s case. At Continental, huge areas of seating were replaced by lounges and bars, for both first and coach class passengers, as there was no possibility of selling the aircraft’s capacity, until they were deployed later on new trans-Atlantic routes.

In contrast, Braniff operated a sole 747 from 1971 to 1978 and did so profitably. Operating only between Dallas and Honolulu, Braniff’s 747 was the most intensively used in the global fleet, operating almost continually, day and night, to provide daily service on the long sector.

Additionally, the giant, pumpkin orange aircraft, nicknamed “Fat Albert” became notorious – another marketing sensation for Braniff.

Braniff’s original 747 “Fat Albert” at Dallas Love Field. Photo © George Hamlin via this Flickr page, used with permission

When the London service started in 1978, Fat Albert was moved onto that route, with Braniff leasing a second 747 from American to maintain the Hawaii service. Then, just as similar US airlines were divesting the giant aircraft, Braniff decided to vastly expand its 747 fleet – by 1980, Braniff was operating nine of them. In addition to the Hawaii and Gatwick services, routes were also opened up to Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris from Dallas.

Braniff then went further, opening new international hubs at Boston, for trans-Atlantic service, and Los Angeles, for trans-Pacific services. The flights to and from Boston often ran virtually empty, while the Pacific services were operated by a sub-fleet of 747SPs, the inefficient, short-bodied, variant that Boeing had developed to meet the niche ultra-long haul needs on a couple of routes operated by Pan Am and Iran Air.

By 1981, all of these services, with the exception of the original, profitable, Dallas to Gatwick route, had been discontinued.

The Braniff corporate image, in its evolving guises, adhered to with such discipline in other areas of the business, was applied oddly to the 747 fleet. At the time of the original order for two aircraft, Lawrence posed with models in orange and green versions of the original solid color scheme, but with white titles, rather than black. Clearly, the orange model became Fat Albert and the green was never applied to the second aircraft, which was traded for 727s before delivery.

Perhaps because of its fame and marketing value, Fat Albert never seems to have transitioned into the two-tone livery.

The second tranche of 747s was treated even more strangely. First, they were all orange – Braniff seems to have decided that the unmissable sight of a bright orange 747 would be the basis of their international marketing. Secondly, although delivered in an orange version of the ultra scheme, the 747s replaced the cursive Braniff logo on the fuselage with white titles in a rather weak font called “International Ultra”.

747 at Gatwick in the “International Ultra” scheme. Photo © George Hamlin via this Flickr page, used with permission

It seems a missed opportunity – a 747 painted in one of the dark, high-gloss, schemes of the Ultra era would have been a sight to behold.

Braniff and Deregulation

While the London route marked the start of Braniff’s rapid, if fleeting, intercontinental expansion, the airline was also preparing for deregulation of the US domestic market.

Braniff’s approach to deregulation must be understood in the context of their, decades long, frustration with the CAB and route awards – they were convinced that, for years, they had been held back by bureaucrats in the pockets of their competitors. However, Braniff also believed that deregulation would end up causing chaos for passengers on such a disastrous scale that a public outcry would soon result in re-regulation.

Thus, Lawrence decided to bet the company on a very curious hypothesis – that deregulation would fail, but that the basis of re-regulation would be whatever routes a carrier was operating at that point. In effect, Lawrence decided to expand wildly and “squat” on a wide range of routes so that Braniff could keep them after re-regulation.

Overnight, on December 15th 1978, Braniff expanded its domestic network by 50%, adding 16 new cities and 32 new routes.

As 1979 dawned, Braniff was operating a vastly expanded network, facing new competition and no longer protected by price controls. With the US economy slowing towards recession, the red ink started to flow and there was no sign of the passenger outcry that might reinstate the comfort blanket of regulation.

Unravelling

After the highs of 1978, Braniff started to come apart at an astonishing pace. The frequent updates to crew uniforms and aircraft liveries were replaced by even more frequent alterations to corporate strategy.

As losses mounted, creditors demanded the retirement of Harding Lawrence, who was replaced, in January of 1981, by John J. Casey. Casey decided to double-down, further expanding Braniff’s domestic capacity, but was stymied by an unexpected Air Traffic Control strike over the summer. In Autumn, Casey unveiled the “Braniff Strikes Back” campaign which saw fares simplified into a two-tier system and first class removed from a number of 727s. It was a disaster.

Just as Braniff was simplifying fares, American Airlines, by now expanding its DFW operation, introduced computerised yield management. Business travellers, Braniff’s mainstay, deserted in droves to airlines, like American, that offered first class consistently on all flights. Meanwhile, price-conscious passengers were being tempted by a small Dallas airline known as Southwest.

Demanding a solution to the continued losses, at the end of 1981 the Braniff Board pushed Casey to hire more new blood, which he did by poaching Howard Putnam from Southwest. Putnam removed the remaining first class seats from domestic aircraft and launched a single fare and service structure called “Texas Class”. The first month of “Texas Class” saw a 20% drop in revenue – Braniff was offering the low fares of Southwest with a legacy cost structure.

By the start of 1982, both American and Delta were expanding aggressively at DFW and Braniff embarked on a series of desperate moves to stay afloat.

DC8 at Rio de Janeiro in “Ultra” livery. Photo by clipperarctic [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this Flickr page

Closing the circle that had started with a fight over Mexican routes awards in 1947 and continued with the purchase of Panagra, Braniff planned to sell its South American network to Pan Am, but was blocked on the grounds that this handed Pan Am a monopoly. A counter proposal, to lease the routes jointly with Air Florida, for $30m, was also rejected.

Eventually, Eastern Airlines agreed to lease the South American routes for $18m a year, paying Braniff $11m initially, with the remaining $7m due by the end of 1982.

It was too late. On May 11th 1982, Putnam failed to obtain a court order blocking a pilot strike. The following day, Braniff ceased operations, the first of the legacy carriers to go bankrupt, paving the way for the liquidation of Eastern, Pan Am and TWA.

Ultra liveried 727 stored after Braniff ceased operations. Photo by Aero Icarus [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this Flickr page

Postscript

Billboard liveried A320 of Braniff Mark II. Photo by Aero Icarus [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this Flickr page

Braniff was resurrected as a low-fare carrier in 1983 by the Hyatt hotel chain, but collapsed again in 1989. A second revival, in 1991, barely lasted a year. While the first Braniff revival adopted a completely fresh, billboard-style, identity on its new A320s, the second revival applied a hybrid of the “two tone” and “Ultra” schemes to 727s, in some truly awful colourways, including grey and gold.

Grey 727 of Braniff Mark III arriving at Fort Lauderdale. Photo © Lewis Grant, used with permission, via this Flickr page

Braniff’s restless and innovative brandings – and rebrandings – following its purchase by Greatamerica gave it the air (despite its long history) of a radical upstart, determined to overturn conventional thinking in running an airline and selling it to potential passengers.

It became exactly the sort of company which might have been expected to thrive in a deregulated airline market – the branding was matched by operational innovations. Notably, when competitors started using DC10s and 747s on domestic trunk routes, Braniff stuck with 727s but doubled the frequency – matching capacity but providing business travellers with more flexibility – an approach that is now an industry standard. But when deregulation came, Braniff’s confused response proved fatal.

Back in Dallas, American Airlines turned DFW, once the heart of the Braniff empire, into the model of the fortress mega-hub, exceeding 900 daily departures by the end of 2019. Across town, at the old Love Field airport, Southwest grew into the largest carrier in the US. It did so by cultivating its own unique brand position which has also continuously evolved over the years – from the “Desert Gold” livery and stewardesses in hot pants of the 1970s through to its refusal to charge for luggage today. Braniff might have driven itself to destruction, but its competitor had realised the value of the high-impact brand differentiation Braniff pioneered.

737-700 in the “Desert Gold” scheme used by Southwest from 1971 to 2001. Photo by Tomás Del Coro [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this Flickr page

About the Author

Rory Maxwell has worked in the transport and travel industry since 1998, in a variety of roles, from front-line customer service to operational improvement, strategy development, programme management and leadership positions at operators and OEMs around the world.
Twitter: @rorymaxwell LinkedIn: @rorymaxwell

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the photographers who gave us permission to use their photos in this article. Image credits are in the captions for each photo.

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