Alaska Airlines isn’t shy of special liveries. In fact, its first ‘Salmon Thirty Salmon’ livery – which celebrated the airline’s involvement with the shipment of the precious and tasty cargo –was so popular it returned in 2012. While the airline isn’t the only US carrier to adorn their aircraft with marine life, with Southwest also adorning one of its aircraft with an Orca to support its more questionable partnership with Sea World.

However, Alaska Airlines opted to celebrate these majestic creatures in the wild with its latest special “West Coast Wonders” livery, as the Orca is revered as a symbol of the West Coast and considered a guardian of the sea, a protector of humans, and an icon of power.

The airline turned to its familiar partner TEAGUE to help with the project, who in turn wanted to utilise cutting-edge printing technology to bring the end result to life.

“Livery design is a specialized technical skill that we’ve honed over decades. Collaborating with pioneering partners like Boeing and Alaska Airlines to pilot new technologies that stretch the boundaries of our craft is the type of challenge we look forward to.”

Katie Ryan, Livery and Communications Design Manager at Teague

On a traditionally painted livery, each colour is sprayed from a paint gun separately and by hand. This means airlines shy away from fades and colour blending. Extra layout, more spray time, and additional drying cycles equate to more hours and more money. However, with a printer, the opportunities are endless and instead of taking days to paint, any design could be printed in a matter of hours.

Although not new to the industry, Boeing set out to develop it’s own custom printer capable of producing large-scale images. In 2019 they were ready to pilot a new direct-to-shape 3D inkjet printer backed by 120 patents. Alaska agreed to be the first airline to trial the new technology which tested the limits of the machinery whilst also providing an elegant final design that Alaska could be proud of.

TEAGUE’s designers came up with ideas ranging from West Coast birds, orcas, the northern lights, and even an octopus illustrating with its own squirted ink. After many reviews, Alaska decided their 737 should pay tribute to the mighty orca.

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After selecting the final design from a series of proposals, the Boeing printer managed to bring the image to life on both sides of the 737-9’s tail fin in just 12 hours – a fraction of the time compared to the many days and large crew it would take to hand paint such a design.

“The process for painting liveries has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s. From designing the largest full-body decal ever tested on a composite aircraft with Boeing in 2019, to piloting the latest print technology with Alaska Airlines on their new orca livery, we’re combining design, technology, and craft to help shape the future of livery application.”  

Katie Ryan, Livery and Communications Design Manager at Teague

While the direct-to-shape inkjet printer technology is new and not currently integrated into Boeing’s production process, printing directly onto a 737 vertical stabilizer is a huge step in understanding the future of livery application. On December 2nd, 2021, the 737-9 Alaska Airlines Orca plane rolled out of the paint hangar—a beautiful bird, destined for the sky and wrapped from head to tail in one of the greatest wonders of the sea.

Posted by:Jonny Clark

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