How Are Commercial Aircraft Painted?

Over the past year, we’ve seen some amazing liveries. From ANA’s Flying Honu to the British Airways Negus retrojet, there’s been something for everyone. Now United Airlines is set to repaint their entire fleet. With so much aircraft repainting to do  , Simple Flying decided to investigate the process.

Flying Honu
ANA’s Flying Honu rolls out of the paint shop. Photo: Airbus

An aircraft’s paint scheme is important. Not only is it the biggest part of an airline’s identity, it also acts as free advertising wherever the aircraft flies. Additionally, the paint protects the aircraft from the elements as a physical barrier. With this in mind, it is important to get the job done correctly, and a few steps make this possible.

Aircraft Paint
United is about to repaint its entire fleet. Photo: United Airlines

The background

For all but the most complex of designs, it takes around two weeks to repaint an aircraft. This was shown by repainting heavyweights IAC who recreated iconic British Airways liveries on Boeing 747 aircraft in as little as 12 days. The company also knows a thing or two about repainting aircraft, being responsible for a number of rebrands.

Aircraft Paint
British Airways recently repainted three Boeing 747s in retro liveries. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

According to United Airlines, their aircraft are repainted every seven years on average. Most aircraft adopt white paint schemes in order to reflect the sun’s radiation. However, over time an aircraft’s shiny new paint job becomes old, hence the need to repaint aircraft.

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Remove the old layer first

Have you ever repainted your bedroom? You know the deal, maybe lay down a coat of primer on top of the old paint, before adding your chosen colour. Well, repainting an aircraft isn’t the same. Believe it or not, paint’s weight can actually have an effect on an aircraft. In fact, according to FlightRadar24, a single layer of paint on the Airbus A380 can weigh between 600 and 1000 kilograms.

Aircraft Paint
ANAs Flying Honu livery is the most intricate Airbus has painted. The livery took 20 days to paint, an Airbus record according to ex-CEO Tom Enders. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

When aircraft are repainted the first step to strip the previous coat off. In order to achieve this one of two methods is employed. Either a chemical is used to dissolve the paint, or the paint is simply sanded off.

Three very thin layers

Once the old layer has been removed, or if the aircraft is brand new, three thin layers are applied to the exterior. These three layers consist of the primer, the bottom coat, and the top coat. Each layer is just a fraction of a millimetre thick. The aircraft paint is applied using a high volume, low-pressure spray system, which applies an even coat.

Aircraft Paint
A Boeing 777 is painted with a chrome-free primer. Photo: Boeing

After the three layers of paint have dried, the aircraft is flown back to the airline who owns it. Depending on the livery, this can be a large affair, or not even noticed.

What is your favourite aircraft paint scheme? Let us know in the comments!

 

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Roger Blair

Of the “new” paint schemes I’ve seen, I think Alaska Airlines “Salmon Thirty Salmon” is the best. In support of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Council, Alaska Airlines painted an amazingly accurate King Salmon (or Chinook Salmon), over the entire length of a 737. Without seeing the airplane, or at least a photo of it, it’s hard to visualize how such an accurate depiction of the fish could be created. Those who have handled an ocean bright King Salmon will marvel at the plane when they see it.