United Airlines Facing Paint Shop Delays
According to reports, travelers have noticed that several aircraft from United Airlines are experiencing paint defects while waiting to receive fresh coats. To keep up with the demand of summer and post-pandemic travel, the airline has been pulling jets out of storage but are reportedly facing long wait times from paint shops.
Several aircraft were unable to get fresh coats before being made active again, with planes flaking and peeling on the fuselages after spending nearly two years in the desert. Two Pratt & Whitney-powered 777 planes were grounded for 15 months to inspect and repair blades on their engines, but are now being returned to service by United from the storage yard.
While these paint defects don’t pose a safety issue, they can be an “eyesore” and pose issues for brand appeal and corporate pride.
Aviation enthusiast Jerry Lai told Bloomberg that he encountered several “worse-for-wear” jets while traveling, including a Boeing 757-300 with paint stripped down to the primer. The jet reportedly stood out against the other aircraft in United’s hub at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
“It caught my eye,” Lai said. While he knew such issues are purely cosmetic—and that this particular paint job was atypical—his first reaction was: “This plane is in really cruddy shape.”
Some of the United jets that are returning to service are looking a bit rough around the edges https://t.co/rl5NL31zik— Bloomberg (@business) June 11, 2022
Gary Weissel, a consultant specializing in aircraft overhauls, said that the wait for a fresh coat can stretch six to eight weeks, depending on the site and type of paint aircraft operators require. However, that’s providing airlines can find openings.
“Paint slots are like hen’s teeth these days,” Weissel said. “Pre-pandemic I don’t think we ever waited more than a couple of weeks for paint.”
Some operators are reportedly sending their aircraft to Europe, with lead times running about a month.
Cliff Collier, a principal with Charles Edwards Management Consultant, told reporters that these paint shops are facing logistics and staffing shortage issues, including hiring and training. Additionally, they are feeling “ripple effects” from raw material shortages that have disrupted paint production in general.
For the work, crews first strip down old paint to the metal, then mask surfaces and lay on a coat of primer. The final coating is typically sprayed on, with painting needing to be according to federal standards.
“There’s a lot of stuff you can do wrong in painting,” Collier said.
A spokesperson for American Airlines said painting work typically slows during the summer. Representatives for Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines said they aren’t facing delays for jet painting. United had no immediate reply when asked for comment.
Last year, United resumed its aircraft painting program, with its 2021 plan calling for painting the 50 “neediest” aircraft, first based on factors including their most recent appearance audit findings, securing capacity with our vendors, obtaining network allocation and consideration of maintenance or storage events that are already on the schedule.
The program was expected to begin in February 2021, with one line for widebody aircraft and another for narrowbody aircraft. The speed of the program would reportedly be based on how consumer demand developed over the year.
However, the program was met with controversy from some United employees due to the concern United was prioritizing the paint jobs over employees. At the time of the announcement, the airline was reportedly laying off employees and the painting work was not being completed in-house and was outsourced to contractors.
“We cannot just do the painting ourselves. We used to do touchups at some stations, but we are talking about aircraft that really need paint,” a United maintenance worker told reporters at the time. “This isn’t a vanity project and should never have been put off in the first place.”
“To clarify the purpose of our paint line activity in 2021, the objective is only to address the appearance of aircraft that are in poor paint condition,” a United pilot explained. “They will of course receive the new livery but that is not the driving goal of the painting that will be accomplished during 2021.”
Additionally, if paint issues remain unresolved long enough, they can turn into maintenance issues. At the time, some noted that many of the aircraft required new paint jobs.
Paint Material Shortages, Inflation
Late last year, it was reported that the coatings industry was beginning to see a shortage and price surge in paint. Apart from the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry witnessed both a surge a demand from do-it-yourselfers stuck at home, a Texas freeze and worsening supply chain issues.
At the time, the Federal Reserve said that the higher inflation was only “transitory” or temporary and appeared to be showing signs of abating. The central bank’s report was backed by White House officials, who also state that while they’re sensitive to the rising prices, they foresee that supply chain issues will soon subside, having observed the slight downward trend in hardware, lumber and other building materials.
In a separate report, however, equity analyst firm, Morgan Stanley, predicted that that the inflation would continue through the first half of 2022 and then veer into deflation for the second half. In specifically refencing the coatings industry, the firm said this represented “the peak of raw material availability issues/cost inflation, but just the early stages of price achievement against it.”
The major factors that would determine how persistent the inflation is in the industry, however, is how the nation bounces back from Hurricane Ida and the functionality of global supply chains for the chemical industry. As mentioned, the Texas freeze in 2021 also affected the chemical industry, in that much of its petroleum production—a critical ingredient in paint—was slowed.
These shortages, seen mostly in epoxies and acrylics, as well as several types of solvents and additives, were the main issues the industry was facing, according to the firm.
As a result, many coatings companies increased its selling prices. Some of the companies included Sherwin-Williams, PPG and RPM International Inc., the parent company of specialty coatings and sealants brands including Carboline and Tremco. In January, chemical company BASF also announced that it would be increasing prices for its paint and coatings additives globally, with increases of up to 35%.
In the latest Price Producer Index by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction input prices rose 2.9% in March, and 24.4% higher from a year ago. In nonresidential construction, input prices also witnessed an increase of 2.8%.
The steadily increasing numbers haven’t been much a surprise, however, as March was the eighteenth-straight month in which the cost index rose more than the bid-price index on a year-over-year basis, according to the Associated General Contractors of America’s Chief Economist, Ken Simonson.
At the beginning of the year, the AGC found that increased prices of construction materials were outpacing the rate at which contractors are raising their bid prices. In a survey issued by the association in January, 86% of contractors rated material costs at their top concern for 2022, more than any other concern. Availability of materials and supply chain disruptions were the second most frequent concern, listed by 77% of the more than 1,000 respondents.
In the AGC report, the association noted that prices rose faster than the 17% increase in bid prices for a wide range of inputs in the cost index. According to the latest PPI report, year-over-year steel mill product prices rose 42.9%, aluminum mill shapes jumped 43.7% and plastic construction products increased by 35.2%.
Other products breaching the 17% bid increase threshold included diesel fuel (63.8%), truck transportation of freight (24.5%), asphalt and tar roofing and siding products (22.6%), lumber and plywood (20.9%), gypsum products (20.8%), architectural coatings (20.6%) and insulation materials (17.4%).