Every aircraft needs several paint refreshes, or new liveries, during its active life. This is important for protection, performance, and airline branding. How does this happen, and how much does it cost?
As you can imagine, painting an aircraft is no easy task.
The first step in painting is to remove the previous paint layers, use solvents to remove the paint, and sand down the surface. This is essential to reduce weight (Qantas estimates the significance of colour on an A380 to be over 500 kilograms, for example). It also gives a chance to inspect the fuselage for damage or corrosion.
The paint is then re-applied. It is sprayed on one colour at a time, with areas of the fuselage not painted with each colour carefully covered. A gloss layer finishes the paint job.
How much does a re-paint cost?
Painting and maintenance costs are not something that airlines generally publish. But we can get a good idea from information shared online.
Discussion from several people on Stack Exchange indicates $175,000 and upwards for widebody aircraft and down to $50,000 for narrowbodies. With the 747 going as high as $300,000
Tom Horton from American Airlines quotes a re-paint cost of $100,000 to $200,000 for a Boeing 777 (depending on complexity) and around $50,000 for an Airbus A320 aircraft.
The BBC looked at the case of British Airways’ re-painting its A319 aircraft. It does not cost this but details a re-paint taking a ten-person team 950 person-hours to re-paint.
And website Travel Stats Man attempted an exciting calculation of the total cost for British Airways to re-paint its 747 aircraft. Such a calculation has to make various assumptions about paint and person-hours, but it reached estimates of over $200,000 per aircraft.
It is sometimes higher, though. A re-paint in 2020 of the UK’s government VIP transport RAF Voyager aircraft cost the taxpayer an incredible £900,000 ($1.2 million). With a red, white, and blue scheme, it is undoubtedly patriotic but also expensive.
Taking aircraft out of service
Also, remember that the physical painting and labour cost is only part of the equation. Taking an aircraft out of service is a significant expense for any airline. Re-painting can take up to two weeks for larger aircraft, so this is very significant. It’s common (and sensible) to schedule painting, maintenance, and other updates or refits together, to minimize the time the aircraft is out of use.
Minimizing re-painting makes sense, given high costs and time out of service. Many aircraft have a mainly white colour scheme, as white fades slower than other colours. It also helps keep the plane cooler and shows up fuselage damage easier.
Typically, most aircraft are re-painted at least every seven to ten years.
Why paint aircraft?
Given that it is so expensive, you may question why airlines paint aircraft at all. And more importantly, why they regularly re-paint. There are several important reasons.
The livery is an integral part of branding. Airlines want to change this between aircraft. And indeed, when sold (or leased) to another airline, it will need to change.
But more importantly, re-painting is also necessary for safety and performance. Regular painting helps to avoid corrosion of the fuselage, and stripping back allows inspection and repair. Dirt and damage to the surface also reduce aerodynamic performance.