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The Skinny on Airplane Painting

In the world of aerodynamics, every little improvement can add up to big savings. One of the areas that airlines are constantly experimenting with is paint. Now, easyJet has announced it will start using a new kind of paint that might save some gas for the airline. But why do they even use paint at all? Keep reading.

This new paint is supposed to do a couple of things better than existing paint. First of all, it weighs less than traditional paint, and even a couple of pounds less can add up to big savings when looked at per year across an entire fleet of aircraft.

Airbus

This magic paint also creates a smoother surface on the skin. That can help reduce drag, if ever so slightly, but it also prevents debris from stacking up in the small crevices that exist with traditional paint. Apparently, easyJet thinks it can improve fuel consumption by 2 percent. If that pays for the cost of the paint, then it’s a worthwhile move.

But it does beg the age-old question . . . why use paint at all? People will often look at American Airlines and think it has an advantage because it just uses a bare metal skin instead of one that’s painted. As you’ve probably guessed, the suggested benefit isn’t really clear or everyone else would be doing this as well.

First of all, while paint does weigh something, it also provides excellent protection for the skin of the airplane. It’s a buffer to keep the elements from eating away, as has been known to happen over time.

To combat this, airlines with bare metal finish can use other materials to protect the skin, but that then takes away from the cost advantage of going without paint. They also have to polish the skin to keep it from looking awful and that adds more cost.

Another issue with bare metal is that fewer and fewer airplanes are actually made with metal. The newest ones down the pipe use composites and that means you can’t get that shiny metal finish. This isn’t a performance issue but it does make your airplanes look really bad.

That’s why when American took delivery of its A300 aircraft long ago, it painted them gray. In later years, they were put into the metal scheme, but as you can see above, the entire rear of the airplane remained gray because of the composites. The A300 doesn’t have nearly as much composite as the newer airplanes like the 787 so it’s only going to become more of a problem.

If you’re still skeptical that paint is a good idea, you can look no further than the airlines that actually have tried to go with a bare metal scheme to see if it saved any money. Notably, Air Canada stripped the paint off a 767. (See a picture of this ugly bird) The benefit wasn’t there and the paint returned.

So paint is here to stay, but what kind of paint? If easyJet can really get 2 percent better fuel consumption, then others will likely follow.

[Photo via Flickr user egmTacahopeful/CC 2.0]

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