Friday, 15 October 2010

Quality of Life Improvement 29: Anatomy of a Tulip (2010)

The closest that we've ever come to affection for corporate America came in the early-1990s, courtesy of (yes, shockingly, we know) United Airlines.

Hong Kong's airport was still the storied Kai Tak (啟德機場) in those long-gone days. The airport's single runway had been carefully inserted on a tiny sliver of land between Hong Kong's mountains and harbor. Owing to the surrounding topography, pilots landing at Kai Tak would descend over Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour and Western Kowloon, passing over the beacon on Lion Rock while executing a tricky, tight 47° final turn, at low altitude, to (hopefully) line up with the airport's runway.

photo © Phil Wells

For any lucky enough to remember, the sight was spectacular—particularly on days with low cloud clogging the mountains. On those days, the scream of engines would be heard, but nothing would be seen. Then, almost instantaneously a 747 would emerge from the murk in a steep bank.

We remember a searing, sappingly hot and humid day in the summer of 1994. While absorbed in some forgotten banality, we heard the familiar sound of approaching engines, and looked around for the horizon, but saw nothing but block after grimy block of flats. Resigned to seeing nothing but laundry fluttering from open windows, we looked upwards again when the sound of the approaching aircraft became even louder and more piercing.

Then there, through the whites hanging on lines, was a United Airlines 747. For a short second after seeing that flash of red, white and blue, something felt familiar. It was as though we had seen a handsome, familiar face among the rows of hanging ducks that lined the streets of Hong Kong. Maybe we heard the last few bars of Rhapsody in Blue and thought of the shiny, muscular United States. Maybe we saw the image that we've seen dozens of times before over the past quarter-century: Diamond Head framed by United Airlines Tulip-emplazoned tails at Honolulu Airport. It reminded us of what's probably the love of our life—Hawaiʻi—and it made us smile.

Many things about that experience we vividly remember, but more than any, we remember the brilliant white tail emblazoned with the familiar United "Tulip," the sylized capital "U" logo created by American design legend Saul Bass for the airline in 1974.

Saul Bass is an American hero, a jack-of-all-design-trades. Beyond United Airlines, he designed now-iconic logos for AT&T, the Girl Scouts, Kleenex, Quaker, United Way, Warner Music Group and, ironically, Continental Airlines' "meatball" logo (1968-1991).

Bass is also known for his contribution to the cinematic arts. In particular, he created famous opening title credit sequences for famous films "The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)," "Vertigo (1958)," "Anatomy of a Murder (1958, with Duke Ellington, no less)," "North by Northwest (1959)" and "West Side Story (1961)," among many others.

Now, decades later and after many crises, United has recently merged with Continental Airlines. To be fair, over the last decade the airline industry has seen rocky, sometimes downright grim days, but the United "leadership" have never lost an opportunity to demonstrate their incompetence and venality.

Don't want to figure out how to pay for your employees' pensions, after you and your predecessors have frittered away their retirement money with foolish, risky investments instead of traditional, conservative investment in the bond market? No problem when you're a member of United's corporate leadership; The answers are simple if you're a CEO at United: fuck 'em with a closet-stick!

Forget the pensions. Forget the pensioners. Blame the unions (since, clearly, they're the ones ruining the United States), but keep your own incomes at vulgar levels. To give just one example, in 2006, United CEO Glenn Tilton's compensation was nearly $40 million. That's right. Forty. At the same time, United employees received generous lessons in the "cyclical nature" of "free markets," and other fantasies.

So by comparison, something like the deletion of a much-loved logo is actually quite minor.

Trivial, really.

That being said, the leadership of the new corporation created when United and Continental merged have decided to keep the United brand—a smart move—but have elected to delete United's iconic tulip in favor of Continental's...mirrorball...or, something...(?).

Almost immediately after the announcement, an outcrying of lament began among those who consider the Tulip part of the US' patrimony, along with the flag and Dolly Parton. Facebook pages sprang up; Online petitions began to circulate; Blogs, like this one, commented angrily about the asinine decision, but it all seems to have fallen on deaf ears at United.

From a commercial perspective, it beggars belief that Continental's bland, unidentifiable logo would be chosen as the emblem of one of the United States' most visible brands. Why quit a logo with longstanding, widespread popular recognition for one that almost no one can conjure from memory on command? It doesn't seem sensible, even by the already low standards of sensibility that we hold out for United's corporate directors.

Our hope is that United is trying to educe an empassioned response from the public, calling—even demanding—for a return of their beloved Tulip, something along the lines of the conspiracy theories surrounding Coca-Cola's experiment with "New Coke" in the 1980s. We hope that United is subtly pulling the publicity strings, and that after "overwhelming popular demand" the Tulip will be triumphantly returned to the tail of United aircraft where it belongs, and in so doing, that it will have created a feeling of renewed likability and familiarity with the United brand after years of acrimony between the airline and the flying public.
That's our hope. The only trouble is that we're not sure that the people at (we kid you not) Wacker Drive are that clever.

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