Painting an airplane: Why every layer counts

(CNN) – Airlines are some of the most recognizable brands in the world and there is no better billboard for them than the fuselage of their own aircraft.

Once upon a time, airline paintwork was all about national flags. They were both a symbol of a country’s pride and an expression of the quasi-diplomatic status that airlines enjoyed (hence the term “flagship”).

All of this changed with the liberalization of the aviation industry.

The emergence of a dynamic and competitive private aviation sector opened the floodgates of creativity when it comes to aircraft paintwork: from the bright, bold colors preferred by low-cost airlines to the intricate one-off designs that some airlines delight aviation enthusiasts with every now and then .

Cute animals, comic superheroes and artistic masterpieces – everything is fair game when it comes to grabbing the public’s attention with a catchy airline livery.

Patriotic paintwork has by no means gone out of fashion. In June 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the controversial decision to spend £ 900,000 (US $ 1,116,000) in tax money on a makeover of the Prime Minister’s RAF Voyager jet with the theme of the Union Jack.

What does it take to paint an airliner?

As anyone who has been to an aircraft factory knows, when they leave the assembly line, all aircraft are painted the same colors: green for metallic aircraft and beige for composite aircraft (since no corrosion inhibitors are required).

The green is due to an initial layer of a corrosion-resistant zinc chromate coating. The first of several procedures the aircraft will go through until it gets its final color scheme.

After the airline has signed the livery design, which is often drawn up by an external creative agency, it works closely with the aircraft manufacturers to implement it.

Aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing have their own paint shops and dedicated teams that join the process at this point. You create a dossier that lists everything necessary to get the paint job you want: the type of paint to be used, the patterns to be applied, the amount of resources needed, etc.

A virtual computer-generated 3D model is then created.

This “virtual twin” of the real aircraft is then used to produce templates. These are large, self-adhesive pieces of canvas that, when laid out on the outside of the aircraft and sprayed with paint, create the desired color patterns.

The aircraft is then ready to go to the paint shop.

Each layer adds weight

First, an environmentally friendly chrome-free primer is applied. This is a preparatory coating that helps the successive layers of paint to adhere.

Next up is a layer of background color, which is often white, but not always (this depends on the final color scheme).

The final color sample is applied over this background layer with the help of stencils.

The last layer is a clear coat after all other colored paints and adhesive films are already in place. This varnish seals everything and provides tough protection against airflow erosion, all types of liquids and the effects of UV rays.

The thickness of these layers of paint is very important as each additional layer of paint adds weight to the aircraft. More weight means higher fuel consumption and this adds up over the life of the aircraft with considerable economic and ecological consequences.

It is for this reason that painting processes have been the focus of significant technical innovations with modern, low pressure, high volume spray tools and techniques aimed at reducing the amount of paint required to paint an aircraft.

But not only new aircraft visit the paint shop.

Time for a revision

Commercial aircraft are repainted several times throughout their life. That way, the airlines’ paint jobs stay bright and crisp, and a well-cared for paint can also help prevent potential corrosion problems.

“Large airlines with hundreds of planes like United or Southwest have a schedule to repaint their planes on a regular basis, typically every six years or so,” said Nikki Thomas, an executive at IAC, the world’s largest independent aircraft paint company.

Firms like IAC also take on contracts for large aircraft manufacturers when they need additional capacity that their own paint lines cannot fully handle. However, most of their business comes from aircraft that are already in service.

Changes of ownership, airline renaming, mergers and acquisitions are also important drivers for the aircraft painting market.

“If two airlines decide to merge, a dream will come true for us!” Thomas jokes before adding, “Take a look at United’s new livery, for example, which was unveiled in April 2019. This means nearly 1,000 planes need repainting.”

The current layers of paint must first be removed from aircraft that are already in service. To do this, the aircraft must either be sanded or stripped. The latter is a more thorough procedure that uses chemical agents to wash off the old paint.

The method of choice depends on the condition of the aircraft when it arrives at the paint shop.

Time and money

Painting an aircraft typically takes a week or two and costs can vary widely.

It all depends on the size of the aircraft and the complexity of the design, of course.

For example, painting a regular passenger jet costs between $ 150,000 and $ 300,000, while a smaller plane could cost as little as $ 50,000.

However, it is believed that the UK Prime Minister’s RAF Voyager jet overhaul cost over a million.

The completion of the Boeing 737 from Alaska Airlines with a Disney-Pixar livery “Toy Story” took a whole 21 days. This was because the elaborate design included fine details that had to be done by artists with a brush in hand rather than the more conventional spray.

Another faster, cheaper technique sometimes used to decorate aircraft with particularly complex designs is to use large specialty adhesives called decals.

These are essentially stickers (although made to certain industry specifications) that can be printed and then placed in the right place on the aircraft.

But decals are not for everyone. IAC rarely uses them, says Thomas. Prefer to glue while painting (pun intended).

virgin atlantic new faces

Virgin Atlantic unveiled its new A350 aircraft in 2019.

Courtesy Virgin Atlantic

There can also be significant differences between different color types.

Some are not only more expensive, but also much more difficult to use than others, so the paint teams need additional training. A typical example is paintwork with a mother-of-pearl mica color.

Jean-François Paul, Head of the Airbus Paint Center in Toulouse, France, gives an example of the paintwork on the Virgin Atlantic A350 aircraft, the first of which was delivered in summer 2019.

This paintwork uses a special effect paint that contains tiny aluminum particles and other specific pigments that create a unique glitter effect.

Although the design pattern looks quite simple at first glance, the arrangement of the various shades of red shows an unusual complexity and sophistication.

“It was a very challenging paint job, but it’s beautiful,” he says.

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