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How Do Airplanes Get Painted? The Weeks-long Process, Explained

Travel + Leisure logo Travel + Leisure 6 days ago Alison Fox
a large passenger jet flying through a clear blue sky © Getty Images

When we step on an airplane, we often take stock of how comfortable the seats are, how big the in-flight entertainment screens are, or how spacious the overhead bins look. We don’t often pay much attention to the outside of the plane.

But while we may not notice how the airplane is painted as quickly as we notice how many bathrooms are available onboard, it’s important to note how much time, care, and attention goes into the plane’s appearance.

A plane’s paint job typically needs to be retouched every 10 years or so — from the normal wear and tear that comes with zipping through the skies several times each day — Thad Beyer, the Hawaiian Airlines North America heavy maintenance manager, told Travel + Leisure. And sometimes, that paint refresh turns into a whole 16-day process when an airline decides to rebrand or create a special design.

“When someone says we're performing maintenance on an airplane, they think you worked on the engines,” Beyer said. “No, there is so much to work on.”

The process of repainting an entire plane is complicated, precise, and takes many steps, each of which have to be done perfectly.

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“It’s a very complex process. You need a very environmentally controlled facility,” he added. “And you need people who do this every day.”

Beyer walked Travel + Leisure through the intricate steps, giving us a whole new appreciation of all the things that go into making your next flying experience great.

Step 1: Mask and seal

Beyer said the first step is to close up all the ducts and safety-sensitive equipment before sealing up the entire plane, including the windows. This process takes about two days to complete.

Step 2: Strip and sand the aircraft

The next step is to strip the fuselage of the plane with a peroxide-based stripper before the wings get a “scuff sand.” “The paint basically falls off the aircraft,” Beyer said about the stripping process. “It brings it sometimes down to bare metal, sometimes down to the primer.”

Stripping the plane takes about 24 hours and the sanding takes three to five days.

Step 3: Wash and decontaminate the aircraft

Experts run water all over the fuselage and wings to wash the plane, which takes anywhere from 24 to 36 hours. When they’re done washing it, Beyer said they do what is called a “water break test” by running the water straight down to make sure there isn’t any decontamination left.

Step 4: Prime and paint

The next step is to run primer down the wings, the tail, and on the fuselage of the plane, which can take up to four hours to set.

“Then we can paint,” Beyer said. “The paint mixing process is very detailed, it's got to be exact.” The paint itself is mixed by a manufacturer, to which Beyer said they add an accelerator to make it dry faster. At this point, the process is halfway done, and it will take about eight days from when they start painting to finish.

Step 5: Replacing all the technical markings

During the beginning steps, the aircraft was stripped of everything. Now, it’s time to put it all back.

Beyer said all the technical markings — all the FAA-required items — have to be replaced in a very specific way. “They're very precise,” he said. “You have to use very specific, detailed drawings developed from our engineering department. There's no deviation to installing these markings.”

A preliminary inspection is then performed.

Step 6: Applying the final clear coat

Beyer said this last step is one of the most important. Any earlier blemishes have to be fixed before performing it.

“Once you shoot that clear coat, you cannot repair those areas without cutting into the paint,” he said. “It’s extremely important up to that point.” Beyer added that the clear coat can take up to 16 hours to apply, and has to be applied evenly. But “once you're done shooting it, it's 48 hours dry to fly.”

So the next time you board a flight to Hawaii (and we don’t blame you if you’re dreaming of a breathtaking hike or a pristine beach) or plan a plane trip anywhere, take a minute to look at the outside of the plane — it didn’t happen by accident.

RELATED VIDEO: Why Your Airplane’s Wings Will Never Snap Off — Even in Extreme Turbulence

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