August 6, 2017
Why are Commercial Airplanes Usually White?
Ever wonder why most commercial airliners are white? The answer may be pretty obvious. They are usually painted white to reflect sunlight from the aircraft. Some of the basics we learned as kids, like wearing a white shirt to stay cooler on a hot summer day, apply to aircraft as well.
More often than not, airlines paint their fleet white or another similar reflective color. On average, they use over 65 gallons of paint, or airplane sunscreen, per aircraft. It is done not only to reflect the sun’s rays, but also to minimize heating and potential solar radiation. UV rays are more damaging to an aircraft’s fragile components at higher altitudes. Airplane parts that are most at risk are plastics, composite materials, carbon fiber, fiberglass and so on. The nose of the aircraft, which houses crucial composite radars, must not overheat/damage.
To put it simply, cooler planes reduce maintenance costs. A more reflective plane will reduce maintenance and part replacement requirements, potentially saving airlines millions of dollars. More important is the safety factor. Reflective colors on the fuselage reduce the likelihood that aircraft components and instrumentation will malfunction in the air.
However, not all airlines paint their airplanes with light colors. Airlines like Southwest and Air New Zealand paint their aircraft blue and black respectively. That doesn’t necessarily mean the aircraft is unsafe. These airlines tend to focus a lot of resources on maintenance and recoating. Non-white paint tends to oxidize over time due to UV radiation and precipitation, thus costing airlines more to re-paint the aircraft.
Some airlines don’t use paint at all. For instance, American Airlines’ old livery was the iconic polished steel look. This retro look was adored by aviation geeks. However, overtime the exposed metal tarnishes and cracks due to sunlight and altitude pressure. AA spent millions re-polishing its fleet. Just a few years ago, AA decided to change its livery design and go with the current light grey colored scheme, which is much more cost effective.