Decals Vs. Painting: The Different Ways To Apply Aircraft Livery


One of the strongest representations of an airline brand is its airplane and the bold livery it wears. Seeing the colorful fins in an airport is one of the greatest joys of travel and instantly engages us with airlines and their presence on the tarmac. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll even spot a special livery, designed to celebrate a particular event, or as part of a partnership with another brand or product.

Vinyl is faster and cheaper than paint, but is it better? Photo: TAM

When planes receive their permanent livery, they tend to be painted. This is a long and expensive process, costing tens of thousands of dollars and often taking up to ten days for skilled teams of 15 people. In the event of a refurbishment following an airline merger or rebranding, this can be even more complex, requiring the previous coats of paint to be fully removed from the fuselage before the new design can be made. applied.

But for some special liveries, like the new Disney design unveiled by Southwest yesterday, the process is much simpler. In this case, the airline chose to apply a sticker using vinyl wrap to give their plane a whole new look. Vinyl films can be applied much faster, without the need to strip paint first. There is virtually no drying time required and one coat of vinyl is significantly less heavy than several coats of paint.

Decals Vs. Painting: The Different Ways To Apply Aircraft Livery
Southwest’s Disney Plane uses vinyl decals. Photo: Southwest

So if vinyl is so quick and easy to process, why don’t more airlines just wrap their planes?

The challenges of vinyl wrap

Wrapping has become incredibly common in the automotive world, with owners choosing to wrap their vehicles to give them a new look or to protect the paint below from chipping and corrosion. Since vinyl wraps are custom printed, they can sport much more intricate designs that would otherwise require many hours of creation for a skilled airbrush artist.

But planes are not cars, and they have to endure much more aggressive environments than typical road vehicles. Airplane surface temperatures can range from 40 ° C (104 ° F) or more at the airport to -55 ° C (-67 ° F) at 40,000 feet. In addition, the surface of the fuselage is continuously battered by winds of 500 miles per hour and is subjected to a variety of chemicals ranging from engine exhaust to de-icer.

For this reason, vinyl wrap must be applied with absolute precision. The skin of the aircraft can expand and contract with changes in temperature, so it must be stretched significantly to ensure a tight fit. Teams of specialists will be needed to stretch and pull the packaging into place, ensuring that no loose edges or bubbles remain.

If anything is wrong with vinyl wrap, it can be a significant safety risk. Not so much if it’s only a partial decal, like the Southwest Plane, but if the whole body was wrapped up and that sheet came loose, it’s a huge piece of heavy vinyl that squeezed out. wave that could seriously injure someone on the ground.

How long does it take?

For temporary applications, vinyl films have proven to be quite strong. Specialty companies like 3M have packaged some of the world’s largest planes, including the Boeing 747 from Lord of the Rings. This aircraft wore its packaging for approximately seven years before being withdrawn from service and having its packaging removed.

Air New Zealand also had a Boeing 777-300ER wrapped in a “Hobbit” livery to celebrate the film’s release. You can watch part of the application process in the timelapse video below.

But the ZK-OKO, despite sporting an impressive 830 square meter envelope, was still far from a fully enveloped aircraft. He also only flew a little over two years with this huge wrap, before returning to his usual livery.

While wrapping technology may be well suited to small general aviation aircraft, fully wrapping an aircraft remains a rather expensive prospect. As such, very few planes have had large wraps applied, and all of those tend to remove them soon after. Wrapping is a great way to apply a temporary sticker or a smaller, intricate piece of art to an airplane, but for protection, longevity, and a perfect finish, paint is always the first choice.


About Theresa Burton

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