MIAMI — In the airline industry, it is a constant struggle for carriers to differentiate themselves. Some carriers do so through their frequent flyer program perks, their inflight entertainment offerings, and even their food and beverage selections. But since the mid 1980s, Dallas-based low cost carrier Southwest Airlines has used its fleet of uniquely painted Boeing 737s to draw attention from customers and aviation enthusiasts alike.
Southwest’s first special livery aircraft made its debut on May 23, 1988. The 737-300 (N334SW) was painted as a Killer Whale from nose to tail, in partnership with Sea World of Texas. The company introduced the plane with great fanfare, which included a tour of 27 cities including New York, which Southwest did not serve at the time. Special uniforms were given to cabin crew and ground employees, along with dozens of special hand-outs that included everything from bumper stickers to lapel pins, inflatable planes, shirts, kites and wrist watches. Southwest introduced two Boeing 737-500 Shamu planes in 1990 — Shamu Two (N507SW) and Shamu Three (N501SW). At one brief point in the mid 2000s, Southwest had five Shamu aircraft. The company painted two of its 737-700s (N713SW and N715SW) with the Shamu livery before repainting the two 737-500s into their standard Canyon Blue livery. Late in 2014, Southwest announced that it was severing ties with Sea World and would be retiring the Shamu livery. The two remaining Shamu planes were repainted this January, in Spokane, Washington.
In November of 1990, Southwest introduced its second special livery, Lone Star One, in celebration of the airline’s 20th anniversary. This 737-300 (N352SW) is painted with the Texas state flag, as a tribute to the airline’s home state, and the ten cities it serves within the state. Many people do not know that Southwest served another Texas city for a brief time — Beaumont / Port Arthur (BPT) from March 5, 1979 to September 5, 1980. This marked the first time Southwest had withdrawn service to a city, never to return.
It was on May 23, 1994 that Southwest debuted its next state flag plane. This time, it was N383SW, another 737-300 which was painted with the Arizona state flag and dubbed “Arizona One.” Phoenix was Southwest’s first large operation outside of Texas, and is also home to a maintenance base and reservations center.
California One, a 737-300, registered N609SW was introduced on August 1, 1995 as a tribute to the airline’s California destinations, BUR, LAX, OAK, ONT, SAN, SJC, SMF and SNA. Southwest later added SFO, in 2007.
On June 14, 1996, Southwest received a 737-300 (N629SW) dubbed “Silver One” in celebration of the airline’s 25th anniversary. Upon reception from Boeing, the plane was originally a polished bare metal, with white lines marking where the traditional paint scheme would be placed. The overhead bins inside the plane feature the names of every Southwest employee at the time (including this author’s father). Southwest had the plane painted with its Spirit livery in 2009, because its silver paint kept losing its shininess over time, leaving only the “Silver One” logo on the plane’s nose.
Triple Crown One is a special 737-300, dedicated to Southwest Employees and their achievement of the so-called Triple Crown Award for five straight years. The Triple Crown Award criteria consist of best on-time performance, best baggage handling, and fewest customer complaints on an annual basis. While not an official Department of Transportation award, Southwest did in fact earn the statistics for it. In recent years, Southwest’s on-time performance and baggage handling has kept the airline from ranking number one.
Southwest’s first 737-700 special livery, “Nevada One” was introduced on June 2, 1999. In Nevada, Southwest serves Las Vegas and Reno. On the same date, Southwest also announced the creation of a reservations line specifically for Spanish-speaking customers.
Southwest dedicated N781WN “New Mexico One” to the state of New Mexico on September 18, 2000. The city was one of Southwest’s first destinations outside of the state of Texas. The airline’s presence at ABQ grew after the 2006 relaxation of the Wright Amendment, which allowed same-plane direct flights from Dallas Love Field to all destinations, with a stop in a bordering state. However, with the complete repeal of the Wright Amendment in October 2014, Southwest has reduced its service in Albuquerque.
“Maryland One” was introduced to the fleet on June 14, 2005, as a tribute to the State of Maryland and the city of Baltimore. BWI Airport is one of Southwest’s largest operations, and the airline has said it hopes to make it an international gateway city in the future.
From late 2005 to October, 2010, Southwest had one of its 737-700s (N224WN) painted in a unique scheme, marking the airline’s partnership with the National Basketball League. When “Slam Dunk One” made its debut in Dallas, several NBA legends attended the event, including Bill Russell, Clyde Drexler, Bill Walton, George Gervin, and Spud Webb. They even autographed the exterior of the fuselage. In 2010, the NBA and Southwest were unable to reach an agreement that would continue the marketing partnership, so Southwest had to cut ties and opted to repaint the plane into its regular Spirit livery.
The most unique and arguably most eye-catching special aircraft was “SI One,” which Southwest introduced in February 2009 to coincide with the release of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The plane featured a giant image of Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli in a bikini, in the form of a vinyl decal, wrapped down the length of the fuselage. The aircraft (N922WN) only flew for a month with the decal.
“Illinois One” (N918WN) made its debut at Chicago’s Midway Airport on April 14, 2008, celebrating Southwest’s service at the airport since March 17, 1985, with seven daily flights to St. Louis. Southwest has since grown to dominate the airport, precipitated by the fall of Midway Airlines in 1991, and Southwest’s purchase of ATA in 2008. Southwest now operates 258 daily flights and employs nearly 4,300 people at Midway. “Illinois One” was the first aircraft to receive the new tail of the Heart livery, (pictured above) in late February of this year. All other special livery planes will eventually have this same tail.
Florida One debuted on April 23, 2010 in Tampa, Florida. At the time, Southwest flew to five destinations in Florida, but has since added Panama City, Fort Myers/Naples and former Air Tran city Pensacola. Florida has the third-most destinations served by Southwest, after Texas and California. “Florida One” is by far the most ornate design in Southwest’s fleet of specialty aircraft.
On August 22, 2012, Southwest introduced “Colorado One,” which is painted in the image of the Colorado state flag. Southwest’s operation in Denver continues to grow, and currently operated over 180 daily flights. Last fall, Southwest opened five new gates on its concourse at the airport. “Colorado One” marked the first time Southwest opted not to use a brand new 737 for its special livery. This particular aircraft, N230WN also happens to be the 5,000th Boeing 737 ever built, and carries a special placard at the top of the forward entry doorway.
In April of 2013, to celebrate its 25-year partnership with Sea World, Southwest introduced “Penguin One” (N280WN), which featured Sea World’s Gentoo Penguins. Over the years, Southwest had frequently carried Sea World’s penguin ambassadors, Pete and Penny on board inside the passenger cabin as they made their trips to various appearances. However, with the end of the marketing partnership, Penguin One is due to be repainted in early April.
In April of 2015, Southwest Airlines re-painted its SeaWorld Penguin livery, and the airline dedicated the aircraft to Missouri. It became the tenth state livery to be flying about the country.
Last but not least, Southwest flies three of its planes in what they call their Classic livery. These three planes wear a slightly modified version of the airline’s original livery, used from 1971 to 2001. The three planes represent the first three cities served by Southwest — Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Each plane also has a unique dedication. N711SW beard the name of company founder Herb Kelleher on the nose. N714CB is a tribute to President Emeritus Colleen Barrett. The final Classic plane, N792WN is the last plane Southwest received in the original Desert Gold livery, before adopting the Spirit livery with N793WN. Southwest hasn’t said whether they will preserve a plane in their Canyon Blue livery.
What will Southwest come up with next? There are several states in Southwest’s network deserving of a flag livery — the largest of which being New York, where Southwest serves six destinations. Perhaps the airline could follow the lead of American Airlines and introduce a series of heritage liveries, as a nod to the history of the airlines it has acquired over the years. These would include Muse Air/TranStar, Morris Air, ATA and AirTran.
A Southwest spokesperson says a new Triple Crown livery is expected to be unveiled sometime later this quarter as part of a tribute to the first aircraft.