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A British Airways A380 arriving for full livery painting in Hamburg.

How to Paint a Plane: Going Inside the Paint Hangar

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Last week we took a look inside the maintenance hangar, now we’re headed into the paint hangar to see how airplanes are painted. Painting a commercial jet can take up to two weeks depending on the size of the aircraft and how complicated the color scheme is to apply to the plane. The vast majority of aircraft are painted with a high volume, low pressure spray system, which is able to add a very thin, even layer of paint. Paint is generally applied in three layers: primer, base coast, top coat. It is the top coat that gives a plane its shiny appearance.

A Boeing 777F for Qatar Airways prior to painting.
A Boeing 777F for Qatar Airways prior to painting.

Once the aircraft is assembled it heads to the paint hangar for preparations and its final colors. In the time lapse below, you can see a Jetstar Airways 787 assembled and painted.

Different sized aircraft require different amounts of paint, but just how much is quite surprising. An average Boeing 737 requires around 260 litres of paint, while an Airbus A380 can require up to 3600 litres. In the two weeks it takes to paint an A380, painters will cover over 3100 square meters of aircraft surface with paint, but each layer only be .12 millimeters thick. Even so, all that paint adds between 600-1000 kilograms to the weight of the aircraft.

Airbus completes assembly on all A380s in Toulouse, France, then flies each aircraft to Hamburg, Germany for final painting. A380s (like the British Airways A380 in the featured image above) arrive in Hamburg with their tails and engines already painted, so painters finish the job by painting the wings and the fuselage. You may track A380 paint flights, as well as all Airbus pre-delivery test flights, using the call sign filter “AIB”.

A new British Airways A380 (to be registered G-XLEL) flies from final assembly in Toulouse to Hamburg for painting
A new British Airways A380 (to be registered G-XLEL) flies from final assembly in Toulouse to Hamburg for painting

In the video below, watch as an Asiana Airlines Airbus A380 is painted.


Painting Special Liveries

Airlines apply special liveries to aircraft from time-to-time and these liveries are often more intricate than the airline’s normal livery. To help promote the release of the new Star Wars film, ANA is painting three planes in special liveries. The first plane to be painted was a 787-9 painted to resemble R2-D2. In the time lapse below you can see how that livery was applied.

Learn more about tracking all types of special liveries.


Repainting a Plane

New planes are delivered to the paint hangar ready for their livery, but planes with existing paint first need to be stripped of their old paint before new paint is applied. There are two methods for removing old paint on an aircraft. The first method, such as the one used to remove the paint off the US Airways A319 in the video below, is sanding the paint off the aircraft.

American Airlines is currently in the process of repainting all of the old US Airways fleet into American Airlines livery after the two airlines merged. They are currently about halfway through repainting the entire fleet. American is using three main paint shops to repaint the planes in Roswell, New Mexico; Peru, Indiana; and Amarillo, Texas. To track flights of American Airlines aircraft going to be repainted, use call sign filter “AAL” and the appropriate airport filter: Roswell: ROW; Peru: GUS; and Amarillo: AMA. Note the flight numbers will most likely be four digits beginning with the number 9.

US Airways livery A319 by Peter Van Dyke

American Airlines livery A319 by aztrainer

The second method for stripping a plane of paint is much more fun to watch. It involves spraying a solvent on the aircraft to help dissolve the paint off the aircraft. In the time lapse below watch as an Emirates 777 is stripped and repainted.

Commercial aircraft are usually painted every 5 to 6 years depending on their maintenance schedule. All of that paint helps protect the aircraft, especially newer aircraft constructed from composite materials which need to be painted. So the next time you track an A380 from Toulouse to Hamburg, or a new 787 or 777 flying to Portland, you’ll know that it’s going to leave looking much different than when it arrived.


Featured Image by Ramon Jordi

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