By Joe Brancatelli
January 23, 2013 --American Airlines last week unveiled its first new logo, livery and branding in more than 40 years and all around America business travelers yawned.

Despite a snappy video American hoped would gin up enthusiasm, despite the negative bleating of quip-at-the-ready analysts and despite some newspaper attempts to create controversy, airline branding strategies don't register with those of us who fly on the planes. Our concerns are, um, grounded in things like service, price and perks.

"My upgrade on tonight's flight didn't clear. Doesn't matter what color they paint the plane," groused one elite member of American's AAdvantage frequent flier program when I asked her about American's new look. "I wished they'd spent the [rebranding] money on better snacks in the Admirals Club," another frequent flier E-mailed me from American's lounge at its Dallas/Fort Worth hub and hometown.

You can probably understand why those of us who travel on business can't see the forest for the trees when it comes to airline branding. Many of us are important players in our own firms and we've been party to decisions about stuff like names, logos and corporate image. We know that branding is, in the end, a guess, a hunch, a feeling. Unless you go spectacularly off the rails (think New Coke) or hit a rare grand slam (think Target), branding tend to be too ephemeral to quantify.

And, unique to airline branding, we interact with the carrier regularly and make our judgments not on how the carrier looks, but on how it treats us when we book a ticket, check in, sit in the lounge, wait in the boarding area and fly the flights. After a while, in fact, airline logos and brand cues disappear because we see them so frequently on so many aircraft, gates, counters and communications.

But airline branding does matter. Sometimes. For some reasons. And in a few specialized situations.

In the case of American, (OTC: AAMRQ) perhaps the lack of a new identity since Massimo Vignelli's 1968 designs was reason enough for the change. As its own video shows, the carrier changed logos and liveries twice during the 1960s alone. Going more than four decades with the same look might have been visually lazy.

American's change has far more practical and financial underpinnings, however. For starters, American has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since late 2011 and is expected to emerge sometime this year. That alone would justify a new look as a way to signal that American is, in fact, a new company.

The practical consideration: For decades, American went with a "naked," unpainted-metal design for its aircraft. That saved both on the paint job (estimated to cost as much as $100,000 an aircraft) and the fuel-burning weight of the paint itself. Besides, the bright silver of the polished metal gave American aircraft the unique identity a company craves. But many of the new planes coming into American's fleet are constructed of composite materials and require painting.

Lurking in the background? The potential merger with US Airways. (NYSE: LCC) If it happens, there's no question that the surviving brand will be American, so the new look will instantly be identified with the merged company. Observers are even searching for merger clues in the new branding.

Mergers created the most recent opportunities for airline rebranding. When United and Continental airlines agreed to combine in 2010, the United name survived, but most of the colors and livery reflected Continental. In fact, United (NYSE: UAL) even jettisoned its multi-colored "tulip logo," a brand standard since 1974.

The end of the tulip, created by the legendary Saul Bass, even generated a web campaign to save it. But United was no stranger to dumping iconic branding. Its "fly the friendly skies" campaign, first launched in 1965, was canned in 1997. Even 15 years later, however, some travelers use "friendly skies" (often in a derisive manner) to refer to United. Yet the replacement, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, has become its own brand standard and survived the merger.

Another post-merger rebranding was used to wash away a different kind of friendly skies. When Republic Airways Holdings (NASDAQ: RJET) snapped up financially troubled Frontier and Midwest airlines in 2009, the branding choice was tactical. The weaker Frontier name survived and the Midwest name, which reminded travelers of the roomy leather seats and lavish in-flight meals that the carrier once offered, was killed.

"We learned that the Midwest brand had this perception of what [Midwest] was," Republic chief executive Bryan Bedford explained to a blogger in 2010. "Customers would revisit the airline and there would always be disappointment. 'That's not what I remember Midwest to be.' And they were right. It wasn't."

In fairness, Republic's decision to adopt a new name to run from its past is hardly unprecedented. Korean Air Lines, known for decades as KAL, was also known for a string of fatal accidents. And after KAL Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviet military in September, 1983, management felt compelled to rebrand the entire operation.

In 1984, KAL began advertising itself as Korean Air. It moved out of the KAL Building in central Seoul. The KAL logo and red-and-white Korean Air Lines paint job were stripped from aircraft. The planes were repainted sky blue and emblazoned with a new logo and dark blue lettering that said "Korean Air." Unlike most airlines, which boast about their histories and festoon their websites with vintage photography and iconography, you'll find precious little of the KAL era on Korean Air's site. In fact, Korean Air Lines doesn't even use k-a-l as a web address. When you type in KAL.com, you reach a Scotland-based software company.

Most of the time, however, names and brands are as much a boss' whim as anything else. Consider the evolution of the carrier now known as US Airways. In 1979, a year after airline deregulation and just five years after its last rebranding and new paint job, chief executive Ed Colodny renamed Allegheny Airlines as US Air. His theory: Allegheny was a Eastern regional name and he had national ambitions.

Yet the US Air name didn't cut it with Stephen Wolf, the notorious "paint 'em and sell 'em" executive who had previously merged Republic Airlines into Northwest Airlines and Flying Tigers Line into FedEx (NYSE: FDX). When he became the boss of US Air in 1996, one of his first moves was to rename it US Airways and repaint planes in a dark grey/navy blue pattern similar to the livery of United Airlines, where he'd most recently been chairman and chief executive.

Wolf's rational? Colodny's US Air name sounded like a charter operation and scheduled airlines had names like "airways" or "airlines."

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.