More airlines in recent years have started treating their planes' paint schemes, or liveries, as flying billboards to help generate publicity and passengers.
But the proposed designs are becoming more complex. And they're challenging the capabilities of Boeing Co.'s paint professionals.
Now, a technology that's been used for years on ground-based vehicles — vinyl wraps — is available for air carriers flying the 787 Dreamliner built at Boeing's North Charleston campus and in Everett, Wash.
"Some things are paintable but challenging, and some things like a full photograph — realistically we can't paint that," said Tom Sanderson with Boeing's commercial airplanes marketing group. "So having the decal option is another tool in the kit for what you want the overall plane to look like."
Boeing, which announces its quarterly earnings on Wednesday, rolled out the first Dreamliner to be outfitted in a full-body wrap last month in Washington state. It then brought the 787-9 to the aerospace giant's Family Day event in North Charleston earlier this month.
The pink-and-purple-hued commercial jet is meant to draw attention to the company's Employee Community Fund, a nonprofit in which Boeing workers can donate money to charities they choose. Over the last 70 years, the ECF has contributed about $1 billion to help nonprofits in Boeing communities like North Charleston.
The ECF plane's design "embodies the employees of Boeing who give so generously of their time, talent and treasure ...," John Blazey, vice president of Boeing Global Engagement, said in a statement.
Other commercial plane models have been outfitted with full-body vinyl wraps in the past, but never on an aircraft like the Dreamliner that's built of composite materials. The ECF plane was used to test and certify the product for use in commercial flights. The 787-9 eventually will be turned over to an airline customer.
"We've definitely seen an increasing appetite among customers for custom liveries," Sanderson said.
One of the most famous examples is Japanese carrier ANA's Star Wars-themed paint job on a Dreamliner in 2017.
"There is definitely more interest in one-off deliveries to generate excitement around whatever it is the customer wants — sometimes it's a sponsorship they're involved in or to emphasize the 100th aircraft or an aircraft anniversary," he said.
The wraps — a film with pressure-sensitive adhesive on the back and a printable surface on the front — can be less expensive than a traditional paint job because, with paint, the cost and complexity scales with the number of colors used.
"The decal is digitally printed, so it's essentially a fixed cost," Sanderson said.
It also takes less time to apply a wrap than conduct a complex paint job, although wrapped planes still get a coat of primer in the beginning and clear coat at the end of the process.
There are portions of the airframe that aren't painted or wrapped, such as high-erosion areas like the leading edge of the wings and the tail's horizontal and vertical fins.
"But everywhere else where we would normally paint, we can apply the decal," Sanderson said, adding the wraps can withstand the stress and extreme temperature changes that take place during flight as well as paint.
"They have got essentially the same durability," he said.
While full-body wraps on commercial planes are relatively rare, Sanderson sees the technology gaining popularity as customers' demands outstrip what's capable in a paint hangar.
"There is some concept art I've seen for more advanced liveries that we couldn't have done in the past, and now we can with the decal technology," he said. "I'm really excited now that they've seen this one on the 787. We can sort of let the customers' imaginations run loose."