What is a cheat on an airplane livery?

The livery of an aircraft plays an important role in its aesthetic appeal. It also adds a useful touch of variety to the photography of gliders like you and me. Trends in liveries have come and gone over the years, and one trend we rarely see these days is cheating. But what exactly does this refer to and why was it such a prominent role model in years past?

American Airlines’ previous livery featured a prominent tricolor line. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons

What is a cheat?

The term “cheat” refers to a colorful decorative strip painted horizontally along all or part of an aircraft’s fuselage. As a trend, it appeared as early as the 1920s, and its purpose was more than just visually appealing to observers from an airplane. Indeed, as the name suggests, there is an element of optical illusion to this paint scheme.

Specifically, airlines hoped to trick viewers into believing that planes were more streamlined when painted this way. This is because a cheat line surrounds the windows of an airplane, which means they blend in much better with the fuselage than without a cheat line. A plain background otherwise leaves the windows more exposed, increasing their stop-start, staccato-style appearance against the fuselage.

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Lufthansa 747 Retro
The upper deck windows of the Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 retro livery do not benefit from the visual smoothness of those on the lower deck. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

Different varieties

Within the cheat liveries genre, there are different sub-varieties of this old-fashioned paint scheme. One key difference is the number of groups that make up a cheat. While this style often consists of a single line, there have been notable examples with multiple bands, called “tramlines,” constituting the cheat.

Perhaps the most recognizable of these was the old American Airlines livery, which featured a tricolor cheat in the colors of the country’s flag. Famous, it was almost the only paint on this livery, as the American aircraft previously sported a largely “bare metal” look.

Jet Airways Boeing 777 London Heathrow
Some cheat lines do not run the entire length of an aircraft fuselage. This was the case for the planes of the former Indian carrier Jet Airways. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Theft

A cheatline also does not have to run the entire length of an aircraft fuselage. This was the case, as seen above, on Jet Airways Boeing 777s, where the front cabin windows were not covered. Another variety of the cheat was the so-called “hockey stick” livery. This saw the cheat line extend upward towards the drift of the plane.

Much less important today

As a trend, cheat lines generally seem to have lost their previously widespread popularity after the 1970s. That’s not to say that they immediately became obsolete, of course. Indeed, as we saw earlier, Jet Airways sported a partial cheat in the 2010s.

Lufthansa Airbus A321 Frankfurt retro livery
D-AIDV, a Lufthansa Airbus A321, sports a striking retro livery with a blue cheat. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Theft

While cheatlines aren’t as prominent today in terms of new liveries, the trend for retro paint schemes has seen them making a comeback of sorts. Airlines often take the opportunity to repaint an aircraft in an old livery to celebrate their history. This can lead a seemingly common aircraft, such as the Lufthansa A321 seen above, to attract much more avgeek attention than its standard-livery counterparts. Personally, I savor the variety these retros offer!

What’s your favorite cheat livery? Have you ever flown in an airplane with one? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


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