The distinctive polished aluminum of American Airlines’ livery is fading into aviation history, driven by the new orders that will make American’s fleet the youngest among U.S. major carriers in five years. Unpainted composites, which give the new aircraft much of their weight- and fuel-saving features, simply do not shine like aluminum. So the airline is painting the new jets, and much of the older fleet, in a new livery that glitters with silver mica flakes and whose striped tail sections emphasize the union of American and US Airways.

Right now American plans to repaint more than 300 aircraft, perhaps as many as 357, “the ones we will keep,” notes Barbara Kiss, who heads the repainting project for the airline. These will first include Boeing 777s, 737s, 767s then 757s and, lastly, MD-80s. By the end of May, 31 of these aircraft had been repainted, along with four new 777s that Boeing was not yet ready to make over. The hope is to finish repainting mainline aircraft in the second half of 2016. Boeing and Airbus will paint future new aircraft before delivery.

American Eagle Airlines aircraft also are receiving the new livery. American expects about half of existing regional jets (RJ) to be sporting the new look by the end of 2014. Approximately four RJs are being repainted each month. After a summer break for the busy travel season, repainting RJs will resume with about eight per month.

Contract Pitch

The rebranding began in April 2012 when Dean Baldwin Painting showed American, Boeing and other firms’ executives several proposed paint concepts on a parked American jet in Roswell, N.M. The airline had hired Future Brand to help design the new livery, and the whole exercise was conducted in great secrecy. The airline decided in the fourth quarter to go ahead with the conversion project.

American selected two companies to repaint the aircraft. Leading Edge, which has participated in most major livery transitions for two decades, completed the first prototype 737 in January 2013 and now has 150 workers painting the livery in two widebody and two narrowbody hangars in Victorville, Calif.

“We did Northwest to Delta and all of Continental’s and United’s 635 aircraft,” says David Patterson, executive vice president. “Major livery transitions are our forte.” Along with this mainline work, the company is also repainting American Eagle’s Bombardier CRJ700s and Embraer ERJ-145s in Amarillo, Texas.

With the help of city and state governments, Dean Baldwin Painting opened an expanded facility in Peru, Ind. The company has worked on many large-scale paint jobs, for airlines such as JetBlue and SkyWest, but had not previously done rebranding assignments, CEO Barbara Baldwin says.

The company invested $14 million in the facility upgrade, which includes an expansion that grew the facility from 98,000 sq. ft. to 155,000 sq. ft., enough to accommodate a 747-8, a 767-400 and two narrowbodies. The facility was just being finished as its first American aircraft, a 767, was being towed into it in mid-March 2013. And with a 30-year lease on the expanded hangar, Dean Baldwin plans to be painting in Peru long after the American Airlines’ job is over.

There are 200 Baldwin employees painting in Peru, plus others working on American and other carriers’ aircraft in Roswell. Winter temperatures have not been an issue at the Indiana site, with four heaters in each widebody bay and two in each narrowbody bay. The bays are also separated, so overspraying is not an issue.

An early step toward livery conversion involved training the two companies’ workers. Rather than just doing quick contractor job training, which might need to be supplemented later, American gave both firms’ staffs about six weeks of training—a general familiarization for each model, tractor push, logbooks, weighing and ETOPS for the widebodies that may fly overseas.

Painting Process

The actual repainting involves an 12-step process, according to Leading Edge: mask aircraft composite areas; apply chemical stripper to aluminum surfaces; sand composite surfaces to be painted; alkaline wash aircraft; apply prekote; water break; apply paint primer; apply top coat; apply N numbers, fleet numbers, logos, name and stripes; apply required placards according to the maintenance manual; manicure and touch up aircraft; present to customer.

The length of the process depends on aircraft size. At Dean Baldwin, a 737 usually takes from 6-7 days, a 767 11 days and a 777 13-14 days. At Leading Edge, a 737 takes 8-10 days, a 767 11 days and a 777 12 days.

A base coat-clear coat system has helped speed work. The base coat of color dries quickly, rather than in 12-24 hr. Painters then quickly add a clear coat to give colors a final gloss.

Patterson says the mica coat is unique, the base-coat/clear-coat system can be temperamental and it took a while to work out exactly the right size for the mica flakes. But once it had been found, everything went smoothly and the livery sparkles much like the former polished aluminum did.

There is another big advantage to modern aircraft painting techniques. Some of American’s older aircraft had several layers of paint rolled on to the wings. When this is removed and the new livery is sprayed on, there is often a significant reduction in weight for older aircraft, even though the entire fuselage is being painted. And even for the newer 737s, the weight added from full-body painting seem to be slight, about 20 lb. in some cases.