Every couple of years aircraft have to be repainted – depending on strain. Painting is necessary for optical as well as technical reasons and within aviation, it is part of the structure and is classified as Heavy Maintenance.
Technically, the quality requirements are clearly defined and regulated by the OEM. Thus the paint should protect all appearing surfaces and preserve the value of the aircraft. In the process, different aspects such as weight, should be considered.
Another important facet are the looks. Shape and color determine the Corporate Identity. Opacity, gloss, color accuracy and surface appearance often arise discussions- not only due to different tastes. More often it’s a question of know-how.
Painting of aircraft made many people to professionals and laymen at the same time. When it comes to dealing with this topic in greater detail, only a few are willing to do so. Thus, this industry as a whole is very manageable. Lack of volume and know-how are probably the reasons for missing revolutionary inventions.
The OEM generally defines its standards for production. These are, however, in the maintenance repainting not always feasible or after some time no longer state of the art, based on the respective aircraft types. Paint shops also define their standards in order to paint aircraft most economical. Such as high throughput and short turnaround times are goals of paint shops as well as of airliners.
Paint manufacturers develop coatings according to the specifications of the OEM, after the demands on the market or under pressure from government regulations.
At the end it is the customer eg. private owner, operator or airliner bearing responsibility. If everything goes well, that is not a problem. But if it comes to difficulties during the preparation, the course or flight operations, the game of passing the buck begins.
Taking into account what has happened on the market, it is no wonder that such difficulties arise:
The requirements towards environmentally friendly products have increased, prices for paint have fallen, renowned paint shops with part 145 approval had to close, operations in low cost countries came forth without approvals, the service has dropped and the prices have reached rock-bottom.
So how can the customer expect high quality in this system? It seems that it has come so far as to being satisfied with very little, true to the motto: you get what you paid for.
Basically, the development is probably unstoppable that aircraft are painted in low-wage countries. The savings are obvious.
However, several recent aspects should be taken into consideration:
The paint shops have less experience, are not part 145 approved, lack of well trained professionals and don’t have a perfect infrastructure.
Thus, it often is quite a lot of effort for the customer, to prevent problems during the whole process and to ensure that aircraft is painted sustainable, within aviation regulation, technically and optically according to the requirements and quality standards. This includes the selection of the ideal paint system, the delivery of approved data, the requirements of the process, all materials, quality specifications plus their examination. Implementation of scheduled audits are mandatory. In addition, the customer should accompany the paint shop on-site during the repaint process.
The past ten years have shown that such an effort is necessary. This needs resources and should be budgeted.
Furthermore, the paint manufacturer should be aware that the quality of the processing facilities has dropped in total and that they need more training and support nowadays. Ultimately, it has to be the paint manufacturer’s aim that the product is applied optimally on the aircraft.
It remains to be seen whether the aviation authorities will eventually intervene on a regulatory basis – it would be desirable. Paint shops could get a chance to receive a part 145 approval, limited to their field, without type approvals, as it is the case for e.g. NDT inspections, interior work or the window repair.
Instead of being fast and cheap, the market participants should start to rethink – in terms of safety and quality. It is time for a golden middle course. Intelligent solutions are needed in order to paint aircraft securely, sustained, in expected quality, fair-priced and with realistic turnaround times.
This post is not a criticism of individuals, rather an encouragement to give these ideas some thoughts.
A commentary by Hermann Bauer
QuoVadis Exterior Aircraft Painting 16.06.2016