Peeling paint is a fact of life at an airline. But most carriers try their best to keep aircraft looking sharp. They view an airplane's livery as free advertising. That's why jobs like Corey Culbertson's are so important.
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Before Corey Culbertson boards a Southwest Airlines airplane, he stops at the boarding door to look at the blue, red, and orange heart logo to his right, checking whether it’s as shiny and crisp as the day it left the paint shop.
Next, as he takes his window seat near the wing, he scrutinizes the aircraft’s engines to see if they’ve retained their blue sheen and ensure they’re not scuffed or weathered. If he doesn’t like something, he writes down the aircraft’s registration number and follows up in the office.
“I don’t announce what I am doing,” he said. “I try to look nonchalant when I’m doing it. I just want to make sure our fleet looks good.”
Culbertson has one of the more niche jobs at an airline. He’s senior manager of airframe field services, and among other tasks, he is Southwest’s paint guru, in charge of scheduling Southwest’s roughly 750 airplanes for repainting.
Usually airplanes get a full exterior makeover once every eight years, but if something’s not looking right, Culbertson can slot one airplane over another or schedule a touch-up, which is why he looks so closely when he flies.
“What does the customer see when he’s looking at the gate?” Culbertson said. “Around the door, you want it to look nice. The engines should look good, the wings should look good. You want the customers to see a plane that looks good and not one that is old and worn out.”
Peeling paint is not a safety issue, and some airlines have more tolerance for it than others. But in the age of Instagram, with passenger posting tens of thousands of wingtip pictures at 35,000 feet, most major airlines like to keep airplanes looking sharp. They view them as a billboard that travels the country or world, advertising the brand.
At Southwest, which introduced a new look in 2014, what’s on the airplane is as important as the website or airport signage, spokesman Dan Landson said.
“We want to make sure that it looks clean and crisp so folks can put their trust on us,” Landson said.
Tough To Keep Planes Looking Good
It’s not easy to keep an airplane that flies five or six legs per day looking fresh.
Airplanes fly at 30,000 feet or higher, and they get a beating from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, which can make paint fade, Culbertson said.
Plus there’s normal wear and tear, as well as consequences of maintenance visits. When something is wrong with an aircraft, technicians can be more interested in fixing it than maintaining the integrity of the paint.
Southwest is considering painting planes more often that once every eight years, because after about five, passengers may notice imperfections.
“After a while the paint fades,” Culbertson said. “The paint chips off or the paint peels off. It just starts looking bad.”
Southwest’s paint vendor, International Aerospace Coatings, can paint two planes at one time — one in Victorville, Calif., and the other in Spokane, Wash.
But the process takes about eight days, and Southwest, like other airlines, cannot always afford to take planes from service. This summer, with its 34 Boeing 737 Max airplanes grounded, Southwest needs every airplane it has, so it has suspended painting, Landson said. It expects to resume in the fall, when demand for travel falls.
For now most planes that go into paint are transitioning to Southwest’s newish look. While some airlines accelerate painting when they introduce a new livery, Southwest kept its regular schedule, so about a quarter of the fleet still has the pre-2014 paint job. Once the last plane gets the new scheme, likely in a couple of years, Southwest will begin repainting the first airplanes that got it.
In the painting process, the most labor-intensive period is the four to five days of preparation, Culbertson said. About a dozen workers strip the fuselage to the bare metal and then clean it, getting it ready for primer and paint. They also scuff the wings and most composite surfaces, taking the sheen off, so paint will stick. In addition they mask off the windows, ensuring they’re free from errant paint.
Four workers usually paint the airplane, Culbertson said, using spray paint, with each handling a quarter of the airplane. They’re assisted by four spotters, who, among other tasks, ensure the paints don’t mistakenly damage the aircraft when they move their lifts.
For a Boeing 737-700, which seats 143 passengers, the contractor uses about 51 gallons of paint, Culbertson said. He declined to share how much it costs to paint one plane, citing contract confidentiality. But it’s not cheap.
Before Culbertson joined Southwest six and a half years ago, he worked for an aircraft painting facility that did contract work for American Airlines.
Then American was transitioning to a new look, with an intricate red, white, and blue tail. It’s so challenging to paint that when US Airways executives took over American in 2014, management considered scrapping the design on the tail for American’s old logo.
“There was a lot of skepticism on that,” Culbertson said. “We were all curious how that would work.”
American figured it out as Culbertson moved to Southwest, where the regular paint job is not as complicated. But it also has its challenges, he said.
The biggest is the multicolored heart logo. Southwest has two on the new livery, one on the belly and the other near the passenger-boarding door. It takes one person six to eight hours to paint a heart, he said, mostly because the worker must wait two hours for each color to dry before starting the next.
Still, that’s easy to compared to some of Southwest’s special paint jobs. The airline has a series of planes with unique designs, many dedicated to a U.S. state, like California One, Illinois One, Maryland One, and Missouri One.
All take a dozen days to paint, Culberston said, as they’re typically more ornate than the regular scheme. But only one is far more difficult than the rest, he said.
“It’s the Florida One, 945,” he said, using the aircraft’s registration number, N945WN.
It’s an aircraft emblazoned with the state seal, and according to the airline, it features a “Seminole woman, hibiscus flowers, Sabal palms [one of the state trees], and a steamboat.”
What’s the issue?
“It has a lot of different colors, that’s it,” Culberston said. “It’s just a lot of prep work.”
Photo credit: Corey Culbertson is Southwest's senior manager of airframe field services and handles the airline's airplane painting schedule. Stephen M. Keller / Southwest Airlines