How Aircraft Are Painted

An aircraft paint scheme is very important. It represents the airline, identifies the aircraft, and offers vital protection to the fuselage. We all see plenty of different paint schemes whenever we fly, but have you ever wondered how aircraft get painted? Read on, as this article will explain how this happens.

Boeing 737 repainting
Painting an aircraft offers branding opportunities as well as protection. Photo: American Airlines

Why paint an aircraft?

Firstly, applying paint to an aircraft offers protection. Exposures in the fuselage surface can lead to damage and corrosion. Priming and painting help to prevent this, and stripping back to re-paint allows inspection and repair of the fuselage.

A fresh paint job can also help aircraft performance. Dirt builds up on the surface, which reduces aerodynamic performance. While cleaning, of course, helps this, so does an occasional re-paint.

But a paint job is also visual. It identifies the aircraft on the ground and also provides a major form of branding and advertising for airlines. As well as the standard presentation of airline logos, we often see interesting paint schemes reflecting airlines’ history, regional influences, and alliance membership.

Getty American Airlines oneworld
Liveries can promote alliances as well as airline brands. Photo: Getty Images

Re-painting every 7-10 years

Most airlines will re-paint regularly. Qantas claims it re-paints aircraft on average around every 10 years. And when Simple Flying looked previously at United Airline’s re-painting, we noted it was re-painting aircraft on average every seven years. Some airlines may leave it longer, but a worn and wearing paint job will certainly not help the airline’s image!

Re-painting is not necessarily a quick task. It can take up to two weeks. Taking an aircraft out of service for this long is, of course, very expensive, and airlines will usually plan re-painting around other maintenance work or cabin upgrades.

And it is not cheap. According to reporting in The Telegraph, an aircraft re-paint can cost between $50,000 and $200,000.

So, how does a re-paint proceed?

First, seal up parts not to be painted

There are many parts of an aircraft that would not take well to paint. The windows are an obvious one, but also parts of the engine, ducts, and other sensitive equipment. This all needs to be carefully covered and sealed before anything is sprayed onto the fuselage.

Aircraft paint stripped
Surfaces are covered before painting. Photo: American Airlines

Second, remove the old paint layers

Before an aircraft is painted, it needs to be stripped of its previous paint. It is not left there, as you may do when painting houses or other structures. Weight is a significant consideration with aircraft, and leaving previous paint layers would add to it unnecessarily. According to Qantas, for example, paint on the Airbus A380 can weigh over 500 kilograms.

Paint layers are removed with solvent (this will dissolve the paint quickly) and then often sanded down. Exposing the metal skin also allows it to be inspected for damage, and any corrosion to be treated.

repainting a plane
A Qantas aircraft stripped before re-painting. Photo: Qantas

And then re-paint

Paint is then applied in thin layers using a high-pressure spray, not a paintbrush. A base layer is first applied to protect the fuselage. Then each color is sprayed one at a time. As each layer is added, any areas not to be painted are covered over.

There are two main types of paint used, often in combination:

  • Polyurethane paint, or epoxy, is the most common. This dries less hard, so it is less likely to chip with exposure. It is also more resistant to chemicals and fades less over time. But it is more expensive, and also releases dangerous gases when being applied.
  • Enamel is a harder type of paint, which is lower cost and safer to apply. Often it will be applied first. Then Polyurethane paints will be added for extra protection and a shiny finish.
Aircraft painting
Primer and paint are applied using a high-pressure, low-volume spray. Photo: Boeing

Why so much white?

Covering, and painting each layer adds time and complexity, and explains why most airlines will only use a few colors in their designs. Why, though, you may wonder, is white often one of these?

There are a few reasons. Firstly, white reflects the heat and helps to keep the aircraft cool. This is even more important with aircraft using carbon fiber and fiberglass construction.

Air France Concorde
Concorde used highly reflective white paint to help withstand the heat generated from supersonic travel. Photo: Getty Images

White, or other light colors, also helps to show up damage or marks on the surface. Treating these early is important for the life of the airframe, as well as aircraft performance.

There are plenty of examples of fun liveries too, not just all white! Take a look at ANA’s impressive sea turtle livery on its A380, or the in-house liveries of Embraer’s E2 jets.

ANA has a small but eye-catching fleet of Airbus A380s. Photo: Airbus

And don’t forget the re-painting of the UK Royal Air Force’s VIP plane, which caused some controversy when the £900,000 ($1.13m) re-paint into Union flag colors was announced.

Do you have any favorite aircraft liveries, or know of any unusual ones? Let us know in the comments.