A Protest to Save Endangered Airplane Animals

The protestors were angry. "Save our tails!" they shouted. Another shook a sign at the onlookers. "Let Flip Fly," it demanded. Clearly, this was not your average demonstration.

But I suppose you could say that Frontier - the focus of all this attention - is not your average airline. At least, not to the people of Denver, the city this low-cost carrier calls home.

Coloradans (and others) are proud of the scrappy little carrier, which has been in and out of bankruptcy - yet still soars over the Rockies, and still retains something of the spirit of the Old West (sure, they'll be happy to transport your rack of antlers, if you cover the tips, and fork over the $100 fee).

But what people love most about the airline - or so it seemed last Friday as they shouted and waved their signs - is Frontier's animals. Those pictures of wildlife that adorn the airline's tails, including the aforementioned Flip the Bottlenose Dolphin, Jack the Rabbit, Larry the Lynx, Grizwald the Bear and 58 other creatures.

So what, you may be thinking. If so, road warrior Rusty Dornin, with the D.C.-based media firm NewsCertified Exchange begs to differ; she says, the animals make you smile - and how many smiles do you see while traveling nowadays? "The airlines these days are so dull and dehumanizing," says Dornin. "Frontier's animal art is a like a breath of fresh air."

Unfortunately, Frontier and its fans may soon be saying goodbye to Griz and his colleagues because Frontier may not be Frontier much longer. These days, it's owned by Republic (which also bought Midwest Airlines) and there's a distinct possibility that the corporate overlords may combine the two popular names to create a whole new airline with completely revamped branding.

Which could mean there will no longer be room for Rudy the Raccoon or Charlie the Cougar or Andy the Antelope. And them's fightin' words, hence the rally. Or is this just sentimentality carried to extremes?

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Animals Make Great Advertising Icons

You have to remember that people are passionate about animals; in fact, the only time I get more comments on about pets on my blog, is when I write about children screaming on planes (and then you really see the fur fly - pun unintended).

And face it, four-legged fauna are great corporate symbols. Consider that three of Advertising Age's Top Ten Advertising Icons of the Century are animals: these include Tony the Tiger, the Energizer Bunny and Borden's Elsie (the rest are "humans" like the Marlborough Man, Ronald McDonald, the Green Giant, Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, the Michelin Man and the somewhat unclassifiable Pillsbury Doughboy).

Other carriers have had great success with animals; just look at Qantas and their kangaroo-emblazoned tails; sure, the logo has evolved over the years (the marsupial used to be pictured with wings) but it's still there, a steady and reassuring presence. Besides, they have koalas waiting in the wings if the kangaroo ever gets too demanding.

Yes, there's nothing like a touch of warmth to defrost the coldest of corporate images - even if it seems, well, a little nutty. I mean, Larry the Lynx? But go back even farther, to those painted "smiles" that once graced the planes of now-defunct PSA airlines: you looked at them, and it was hard not to grin back.

Quick: anyone remember Delta's not-so-long-ago leonine mascot, Dusty the Air Lion? Say "air lion" real quick and you'll be groaning in no time.

But the trend these days is for a starker, sleeker, more modern corporate character - something Frontier pilot Janet Elliott finds so impersonal and unappealing. "We've built an emotional bond with this brand and the animals," she says. "It's not just the paint job."

Will Protests Manage to Save Frontier's Animals?

She's got that right, in more ways than one. The animals aren't painted on; they are actually stuck on.

The following details are from Frontier's website: "Images are printed on adhesive-backed vinyl that is similar to contact paper. The image is tiled in 18 to 20 panels [each roughly 3 ft. by 8 ft.]. After all the tiles have been applied, the tail is covered with two coats of clear coat to seal the image and prevent corrosion. Any panel that gets damaged may be replaced individually."

By the way, the panels are printed in Denver and applied in Germany. Which reminds me: there's currently a video floating around YouTube, featuring a scene from "Downfall", the 2004 film about the final days of the Third Reich; but, the subtitles have been changed so that a ranting Hitler now vents about the loss of Frontier's critters. "And what do we tell Griz Bear?" rages the "Fuhrer" who then predicts, "He's going to tear someone a new one!"

On second thought, maybe it's better that the animal fans stick with waving signs and non-violent protests as opposed to having that Hitler on your side.

So what's next? Well, I'm just waiting for news of a rally in Milwaukee, in defense of Midwest's signature chocolate chip cookies. But perhaps that's a column for another time.

There is talk that Frontier's owner, Republic, may come to a decision on the airlines - and the animals - sometime in April. For Flip and his associates, I hope it all works out. Otherwise, they'll be headed to the Old Icons Retirement Home, where they can sit on the porch with Speedy Alka-Seltzer, the Frito Bandito, Mr. Whipple, and the Taco Bell Chihuahua - and reminisce about the days gone by.