A World Full of White Birds

Unveiling the Reasons Behind Painting Airplanes in White

Here is a quick question, what was the color of the aircraft you last flew? Was it white?

From single-engine trainers to multi-engine superjumbos, there is one particular characteristic shared among all: glossy white skin. Have you ever thought about the reason behind those white skins? Here we are going to break down four benefits gained by painting an aircraft in white.

It is Physics!

Yes, Physics! Natural light is an electromagnetic wave. Different colors have different wavelengths that make them different for the human eye. White color surfaces reflect light rays from all the wavelengths while black surfaces absorb them all. Electromagnetic waves carry energy, when absorbed by a surface, this energy dissipates as heat. 

When an aircraft is painted white, it absorbs less heat; hence, reduces the cabin temperature. If the aircraft is equipped with air conditioning, white skin whittles the burden on air conditioning packs to a certain extent. 

This advantage is significant only on the ground and lower altitudes as the outside temperature drops with gaining altitude.

Ease of Flaw Detection

The outer skin of an aircraft plays an important role in safety and performance. As an aircraft undergoes various environmental conditions during its phases of flight, its outer skin is subject to various damages. Flaw identification on a white-colored fuselage is more effective than on a darker-colored fuselage like Air New Zealand All Black carriers.

Missing fasteners on the fuselage and wings, corrosion sites, bulges, dents, and cracks are easily identified on a white-colored aircraft skin. This improves safety, and financially benefits the airline by saving money on repairs in the long run.

Birds Hate White Color

This point has led to many controversies over time. Esteban Fernández-Juricic in Purdue University conducted research with a few others to identify the relationship between bird strikes and aircraft skin color. By analyzing collected data, they found that aircraft with brighter skins are associated with fewer bird strikes while aircraft with darker skins are reported with higher bird strike rates. They pointed out the contrast of the brighter aircraft against the sky could be the factor that minimizes bird strikes. From 1995 to 2002, nearly 46,000 bird strikes have occurred in the United States. Bird strikes account for 97% of the wildlife attacks in the aviation industry. 

Bird strikes have been a burden for airlines for decades costing millions of dollars for the inspections and repairs. Mitigating factors that fuel bird strikes is a good strategy to improve airline safety and keep the repair costs lower.

Minimizing Cost on Lease Returns 

In commercial aviation, more than 50% of the aircraft are not owned by the operating airlines, but leased from the lessors! With the completion of lease duration, airlines should return airplanes with the status they received: painted white without any logos on the outer skin. Repainting back to white before the lease return is an additional cost with no return. Hence, airlines tend to maintain the white skin as much as possible while marking their logos only in few places. Some airlines like Air New Zealand and Southwest have gone against the trend, making their airplanes colorful and attractive, believing cosmetic beauty can outrun the benefits of white-colored airplanes.

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