By Jim Becker – Market Analyst and Accredited Senior Appraiser
When looking at an advertisement for a used aircraft, there is almost always a mention of the paint and interior. What exactly is meant when the aircraft for sale claims to have “new” paint and interior? Have you ever wondered why this is an important aspect of an aircraft?
As you may have guessed, aftermarket paint and interior are far from being equal. If you are searching for a used aircraft, or for a facility to do paint and interior on your current aircraft – perhaps in order to position it well among the competition for a future sale – the following paragraphs are designed to offer some important information to help you understand what to expect.
When examining a recently painted aircraft either as a prospective buyer or an existing owner, some of the defects to look for are dull marks caused by overspray; over-buffing which removes too much paint pigment and causes thin areas; runs in the paint; ‘orange peel’ (an uneven surface texture); and debris in the paint. Essentially, the surface of a high quality paint job should look like glass when you are inspecting an aircraft’s paintwork.
Also, you should look for paint applied either too thin (which allows for quicker wear and for the slight irregularities in the aluminum surface to show through the paint), or too thick (which can give the aircraft a spotty look and add unnecessary weight). Rough edges on stripes caused by improper blending, uneven stripes, and irregularities from side-to-side are also common mistakes to look for. High quality paint from an experienced and process oriented facility will not only look better, but will also most likely last longer than paint from a lesser quality, inexperienced shop.
The quality of the finish will also make a difference in the value of the aircraft, and the outward appearance is what most buyers notice first. If they are still interested in the aircraft in spite of the paint faults, they will almost certainly look to factor the cost of correction into the price offered. Generally speaking, the typical recommended service life of an average paint and interior is five to seven years, depending on usage and care. It is a good idea to have a complete strip and repaint of the aircraft on a periodic basis. This allows for inspection of the airframe underneath the paint and is important because the paint could be hiding surface corrosion or other defects that are not easily identified.
When evaluating a paint shop to undertake the work of repainting your aircraft, or seeking details of where a repaint occurred for an aircraft advertising ‘new paint’, there are several factors to consider.
First, consider the process for removing the old paint. A quality refinish will require all of the existing paint and aluminium primer to be removed. The preferred method, with composite aircraft as an exception, is the chemical strip process. This minimizes the need for sanding the surface, which can cause unintended damage to rivets and sheet metal. (A superior paint process will also include an Alodine coating and full zinc chromate primer to maximize paint adhesion.)
The second factor is the technique of applying the paint. There is the conventional air spray method that uses an air compressor to force the paint through a nozzle onto the surface of the aircraft. However, a newer method, electrostatic spray painting, electrically charges the paint particles.
These charged paint particles repel each other, and are drawn to the aircraft’s surface, which is oppositely charged. This provides for better paint coverage, reduces overspray and waste, and helps get paint into hard-to-reach areas. The next thing to consider would be the paint booth. Gone are the days of painting an aircraft in an empty hangar, but there are some technologies that allow for better quality. There are two types of aircraft paint booths:
• The wall draft type has the paint spray exiting out one side of the booth. The aircraft will be susceptible to increased paint contamination because the air and possible contaminants are pulled across the wet paint before exiting the paint booth.
• The preferred type is the downdraft. With this design, the paint spray is pulled downward through vents in the floor. This exposes less of the wet paint to the exiting air and possible contaminants.
Another important concern is whether the paint booth is environmentally-controlled. An environmentally-controlled paint
booth controls both the temperature and the humidity, allowing the paint to cure under optimal conditions, as fast as possible, and reducing the chance of paint defects.
Finally, there is the paint facility itself. Is it using good quality paint? There are several great brands of both conventional and high-solid paint that coat well when applied to properly prepped surfaces – take the time to find out what they are. In addition, factors such as tooling and equipment, level of technician training, and references should be taken into consideration prior to picking who repaints your aircraft. If corrosion or damage is discovered underneath the paint, it is important to have the skill available to perform a proper repair.
Although there are relatively few aircraft paint facilities due to the enormous expense and stringent regulations, there can be, and usually are, aircraft interior facilities at nearly every airport.
The aircraft’s interior can be one of the biggest areas of expense in the life of an aircraft. Prices can vary by as much as 50% to 75% from shop-to-shop. Quality generally depends on the shop’s expertise and the amount spent on the interior. Rushing projects is another common reason for mistakes. To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to spot the shortcuts that allow for a low-cost aircraft interior.
The most prevalent shortcuts in a seat refurbishment include not changing the foam and using lesser quality leathers that often have imperfections. There is a big difference in the price of seat leather. Prices can range from $350 to $900 per hide. A typical seat takes two to three hides. The least expensive leather hides will have more flaws in the skin, be less durable and will usually show wear sooner. The color may also vary slightly from hide to hide.
The higher quality leather will have come from animals raised in a non-barbed wire environment. This ensures that there is no scarring on the hides. The hides will be batch dyed (dying many at the same time), thus ensuring that the hide appearance is consistent throughout that batch.
When examining the seats for the quality of a refurbishment, look for perfectly straight and uniform stitch spacing. The tuck lines should be even, and every seat should look identical. And don’t forget to ask whether the seat foam was replaced, and whether the seats were fire blocked.
Surprisingly, carpets are often overlooked. While most aircraft carpet is made of wool, there is again a large range between the entry-level and the top of the line products. Prices can range between $100 to over $900 per square yard. Lower quality carpets will be lighter in weight, while a hand-tufted carpet will be a heavier weight and usually a custom pattern. This also allows for nearly endless customization.
Virtually any size and pattern can be fabricated. If you’re inspecting a recently replaced carpet, there are some important areas to note: there should be no gaps or bumps in the carpet. Also look for wrinkles and surging that fully covers the end and is not frayed. Shortcuts in carpet refurb typically occur when a lesser-quality, cheaper carpet is used – and this often results in ‘smiling’ (seeing through to the backing in the carpet).
Potentially the most expensive component of an aircraft interior is the cabinetry. Most aircraft use either a laminate or veneer to cover the cabinets, tables and bulkheads. The price between laminate and veneer finishes varies significantly. A replacement of the veneer on a Challenger-sized aircraft can easily cost $150,000.
• Laminate is a plastic product that is meant to resemble real wood or a solid color. This is the less expensive of the two options and provides a more uniform appearance – but it cannot be refinished.
• Veneer is a thin layer of real wood that is glued to a substrate. Since veneer is real wood, it provides the richest look possible. Veneer can also be refinished, but is extremely labor intensive. A larger aircraft can have over 1,000 hours of labor involved in the woodwork alone.
The woodwork finishing process is similar to that of painting the aircraft. The surface is sanded and sealed. The refinishing and curing must take place in an environmentally controlled spray booth. The veneer is coated with six to eight coats of polyurethane finish, and each application must be allowed to dry fully with no debris infiltration before the next layer is applied.
Common shortcuts in the woodwork process typically happen in the veneer finishing process, usually because of improper dry times or improper application. When inspecting for shortcuts in the woodwork, look out for fisheyes, cracks, runs, dirt, foggy or milky finish, cracking or peeling of the finish. Also make sure the wood is properly mapped and stained (i.e., the wood grains are lined up and match on the various adjoining doors and drawers).
A concern with veneer is getting the wood to match throughout the aircraft. Since veneer is real wood, the color and pattern of the wood often vary from tree to tree. Great care must be taken to ensure that adjoining pieces blend well together.
The last major component of an aircraft interior is the metal plating. Hardware such as seat belt buckles, lights, latches, air vents and seat controls are plated with a specific metal. Finishes can range from brushed nickel to polished gold, with prices of $30,000 and beyond for the higher-end finishes.
Another thing to consider is whether the cabin has any upgrades. Popular updates include WiFi, LED lighting, updated seat and table designs, satellite radio and tablet integration. The last item of concern for paint and interior is probably one of the most overlooked: the paperwork. It is essential that all of the work accomplished be properly documented with all of the necessary sign-offs in place.
If the aircraft has 16 G seats, there needs to be an approval from a DER (Designated Engineering Representative) from the OEM. The fire blocking certification and all of the 8110 and 8130 forms must be in the aircraft records, too.
Because of all of the different variables, an aircraft can be difficult to properly value – and as you will ascertain from the above paragraphs, paint and interior are no exception. “New” paint and interior can mean vastly different things that could have an extreme effect on the value of an aircraft.
Just because a job is ‘new’ does not necessarily make it of value if corners were cut and inferior materials used in the process. As a prospective buyer, it is best to have a discerning eye with a lot of questions asked when approaching the interior and paint. Make sure that if there are any areas of the aircraft you are not an expert in assessing, you are aligned with a partner that you know and trust to guide you through the process.
Jim Becker is an ASA Accredited Senior Appraiser for Elliott Aviation and holds an FAA Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic license. With over 20- years in the aviation industry, 17 have been with Elliott Aviation in the capacity of valuing aircraft. In 2011, he completed and obtained his certification as an Accredited Senior Appraiser with the American Society of Appraisers (ASA). With experience in aircraft market analysis, he has an extensive knowledge of the aircraft market and has tracked and analyzed thousands of aircraft transactions. Under his Aircraft Specific designation with the ASA, he specializes in developing current and projected market values for turbine-powered aircraft.