Under pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others, Southwest on Thursday said it would curtail its 26-year partnership with the marine park. That means three colorful 737s—Shamu Two, Shamu Three and Penguin One—will retire at the end of the year.
"Shamu," the orca for Southwest, has been flying since 1998, and as such is one of the most famous special liveries in North America," said Jonny Clark, a commercial pilot and director of TheDesignAir, a product and design website covering the airline industry.
"Southwest, being one of the longest lasting low-cost carriers, has historically treated its livery with a little more levity than regular mainline carriers, and actually started creating special liveries back in 1984," Clark told CNBC via email. "Since then, other carriers have started to follow suit, such as Alaska Airlines, with its dubbed 'salmon-thirty-salmon,' to promote the fact it carries some of the best and freshest salmon in the world as cargo on its planes."
Even before Southwest, other airlines were changing the game. "The most memorable and iconic paint jobs were those by airline Braniff," Clark said. "They really changed the playing field for aviation design. In 1973, Alexander Calder, (the) modern artist, was commissioned to run a series of liveries to celebrate the colors of their destinations."
The best airline designs for 2014 is topped by Hawaiian Airways and Fiji Airways, according to an annual competition at TheDesignAir.
For Southwest's two Shamus and its gentoo penguin (which made its debut only one year ago,) the three planes will return to traditional Southwest colors. That likely means a trip to Leading Edge Aviation, which has painted more than 7,500 aircraft for airlines including Southwest, Delta, United and UPS. Each plane will spend four to seven days with Leading Edge for stripping and sanding and ultimately 60 gallons of new paint, according to company statistics.
A company spokeswoman said she was unable to provide a cost estimate.
Southwest did not mention the animal rights protests when it announced the change Thursday.
"Southwest and SeaWorld have mutually decided not to renew their partnership when the contract expires at the end of the year," the companies said in a joint statement. "The companies decided not to renew the contract based on shifting priorities. Southwest is spreading its wings with new international service and increased focus on local market efforts. With an increasing international visitor base, SeaWorld is looking to focus on new and growing markets in Latin America and Asia, among others."