Two decades ago, in a novel marketing ploy to promote travel to Seaworld of Texas, Southwest Airlines created ” Shamu One,” a Boeing 737 painted like Shamu the killer whale.
That was in 1988. Since then, 13 more planes have received non-standard paint jobs, including the latest entry, Florida One.
Emblazoned with an artist’s rendering of the state flag, the aircraft took flight for the first time in late April, celebrating its six Florida destinations, including Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The plane underscores Florida’s importance to the airline, which now carries half of all intra-Florida travelers and about 20 percent of all air traffic to the Sunshine State.
“Customers love the themed planes,” Southwest spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said. “Many will tweet or blog about riding on a certain aircraft. They like the novelty of flying on them and, even more, like having their state get a ‘shout out.'”
Commercial aircraft featuring intricate paint schemes and fancy decals have become popular in recent years, as airlines look to promote themselves and partnerships with state tourism departments, professional sports teams, nonprofit organizations and corporate sponsors. Airlines say they’re willing to pay more for themed planes because of the publicity they garner.
AirTran Airways, which serves all three South Florida airports, has six-themed planes amid its fleet of 138 planes. Four of those specialty planes feature paint jobs that cost as much as $150,000. The others are decorated with decals that start at $2,000, said AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson.
The Orlando-based carrier launched Little Debbie 1 in February. The decaled Boeing 717 features a large portrait of Little Debbie and chocolate cupcakes, and it has been flying across the country this year in an advertising cross-promotion that commemorates the Tennessee snack company’s 50th anniversary. The bakery, in turn, put the AirTran logo on 150 million dessert packages, offering customers a $10 off online coupon on AirTran flights.
“We’ve gotten tons of exposure,” Hutcheson said.
Alaska Air has six themed aircraft in its 114 planes in its fleet. The carrier unveiled the “Salmon-Thirty-Salmon” in 2005 to celebrate its commitment to shipping seafood from Alaska to the Lower 48 states and to promote the consumption of wild Alaska seafood.
Planes with special livery are like rare pieces of art, and creating the visual concepts requires careful study and attention to detail.
Southwest’s Florida One took eight days and 48 gallons of paint to complete. The project required the labor of 32 people over three shifts. The challenge was to re-create the Florida state flag’s logo using 16 colors, only the drawing for reference and the stencils for outline, and making sure both sides were exactly symmetrical, the company said.
“You’re wrapping it [the image] around a long metal tube, so it’s a design challenge,” said Tim McClure, founder of GSD&M Idea City, which designs the specialty planes for Southwest.
Florida One was the most complicated airplane to design, because of the complexity of the state’s flag, he said.
Southwest is the second-largest carrier at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, with 15.7 percent of the airport’s traffic. At Palm Beach International Airport, it’s the fourth-largest airline, with 12.6 percent of the market share.
“One of the benefits is it reminds our customers that we fly there, and we think it helps tourism to the state,” McInnis said.