We all have seen airplanes flying in the sky or filling the apron of an airport, and we surely have seen they are mostly painted white. However, only a few of us may have wondered why.
The truth is that there is more than just an aesthetic appeal behind it, and while there are a few exceptions, there are some essential reasons to use white paint on most planes.
Are you ready to discover why airplanes are white? Keep reading as we share a few reasons with you.
Plane white paint and solar radiation
The color white has always been identified as the best color to reduce the thermal effect of solar radiation. We have always heard or read recommendations like “wear a white T-shirt during the summer” to be as fresh as possible under the sunlight. And this also applies to white planes.
Since white paint reflects sunlight, the cabin of a white plane that is completely exposed to the sun will be at a lower temperature than the cabin of a plane painted with darker colors. Many believe this is the main reason to see mostly white planes since it provides many benefits such as:
It reduces structural damage from solar radiation.
It reduces the cabin heating, making it more comfortable for passengers to be inside.
It helps the air conditioning system work more efficiently.
A white plane is safe
Wildlife strike is a type of hazard that must not be taken lightly. Of course, given the nature of aviation operations, bird strikes are the most common, especially while in flight.
Yet, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, “while 97% of all strikes with civil aircraft in the USA involve birds, strikes with other animals such as deer, coyotes, turtles, skunks, bats, alligators, and iguanas have also been reported.”
For obvious safety reasons, bird strikes must be avoided as much as possible. A bird strike is strictly defined as a collision between a bird and an aircraft that is in flight or on a take-off or landing roll. This can result in severe damage, with engines accounting for 27% of all damaged aircraft components from 1990 to 2019, according to FAA data.
Having airplanes painted white allows for higher contrast with the visual background, making it easier for birds, and any other form of wildlife, to see and flee away from a white airplane much more easily than from those having other colors.
Aircraft predominantly painted white are cheaper
An aircraft that is painted white is cheaper than other airplanes for different reasons.
First of all, the materials used in aircraft paint jobs are different from those used in house painting. To paint a plane a blend of polyurethane paints, catalysts and activators is used. This makes them more expensive.
Then, the white color normally does not fade as others, making the paint last longer even when exposed to harsh atmospheric conditions from flying at high altitudes. This results in savings for the airline company since repainting costs can reach the $200,000-$300,000 range depending on the size of the airplane, requiring the planes to be grounded for two weeks and losing a considerable amount of revenue.
Moreover, since white color requires fewer layers of paint, it adds less weight than other colors. Adding more layers would mean adding more weight, which in turn means more fuel consumption and higher operational costs. Therefore, a white airplane will consume less fuel, meaning airline companies will not suffer from the increased operational costs.
Maintenance is easier and more efficient
Another reason why airplanes are generally white is that it makes detecting damage easier. This results in maintenance being done promptly and more efficiently.
In general, airline companies have to put their planes on the ground to carry out periodic inspections in search of possible oil spills, and possible surface damage such as cracks on the fuselage and other structures, among other aspects that need to be regularly checked to maintain the airworthiness.
When planes are white, any damage on the structure or marks of oil becomes more obvious to the eye.
Also, since white reflects light better, it makes it easier to see planes at night, thus facilitating rescue operations in case of an accident during a night flight.
Better business for the lessor and the seller
Many airlines prefer to lease aircraft instead of buying a whole fleet. Now, if the leasing company is offering white aircraft, the airline company will only need to add the livery with its logo, thus making it easier for the lessor to seal the deal.
On the other hand, selling aircraft with darker colors is usually more challenging. Dark painting usually results in a lower resale price because the buyer will need to repaint afterward.
Only a few exceptions
So far, we have explained the main reasons why we often see planes white, both in the air or on the ground. However, we also mentioned that there are a few exceptions.
Perhaps the most obvious exceptions are found in private aircraft for aesthetics, military aircraft that use darker colors for camouflage, and acrobatic aircraft which are usually colorful for the spectacle.
However, there are also some daring airlines using aircraft with colors other than white. For example, Air New Zealand has most aircraft painted in black. This is mainly for branding purposes since it makes their airplanes easy to identify with their brand.
Other similar examples can be found in the low-cost carrier sector, where passengers from South Africa have the option to fly in fully orange airplanes with Mango Airlines, and a half pink airplane is easily associated with Wizz Air.
Finally, we must say that having an airplane with these kinds of colors is definitely a bold move from the brand. We have to remember that they will not reflect sunlight the same way so the airplane will become hotter both on the ground and during flight. Also, potential damage will be more difficult to identify, and more money is needed to repaint when the color starts to fade.
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Jet pilot @NASA
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