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This is why most airplanes are white

Konstantin Sheiko
June 15, 2018

The majority of airplanes that we see in world’s airports are painted white. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule - for example, Air New Zealand once turned a Boeing 777 into a giant ad for Lord of the Rings movie. Mango, based in Johannesburg, utilises a bright orange hue. Russia’s Siberian carrier S7 tends to colour its planes lime green.

But the vast majority of passenger aircraft are, nevertheless, painted white. First of all, using the white paint is cheaper. Paint adds between 273-544 kg of weight to an aircraft, and extra weight means more fuel is burned - 544kg equates to around eight passengers’ weight. And airlines take the issue of weight and extra-costs very seriously.

In the 1980s, for example, Robert Crandall, the former chief executive of American Airlines, claimed the carrier had made annual savings of $40,000 by removing just one olive from every salad served on board its flights. The paint itself costs money too, and repainting an aircraft uses a lot of it. Approximately 454 litres of paint are used on a typical 747, 341 litres on a 767, and 416 litres on a 777, while a typical 787 Dreamliner paint scheme involves 362-453 kg of paint.

All told, repainting a plane costs between £36,375 ($50,000) and £145,503 ($200,000). Furthermore, airlines often end up selling their aircraft to other carriers. They will find it harder to do so if the colour scheme is anything but white.

Next, the white paint keeps the plane cool. In the same way that lighter colours dominate our summer wardrobes because they are cooler, aircraft are painted white to reflect sunlight. Plane features made of plastic and composite materials such as carbon fiber and fiberglass need the most protection from the heat of the sun. Therefore parts such as the nose cone of the plane, where the aircraft radar lives, and the control surfaces, which are made of composite materials, are all usually painted white or light grey.

Concorde had to be painted with a special highly reflective white paint so it could withstand the heat generated from supersonic travel. Concorde reached 127°C at the nose and trailing edge, but special white paint helped reflect and radiate heat. Its reflectivity was 80 out of 100, compared to the rating of normal white paint of 45-50 out of 100.

Another factor involves damage control. The white colour of most aircraft makes it easier for any cracks, dents, oil spills and other faults to be identified and repaired swiftly. Last, but not least is the search and rescue aspect. It depends where the crash occurs, but, should a plane go down, a white fuselage may well be easier to spot more from the air - another good reason for avoiding colour. 

Photo iStock / frank peters