Why Boris Johnson’s Jet Cost £900,000 to Paint

Yesterday, the aircraft that is used to transport the UK prime minister and other government officials was rolled out of the paint shop and revealed to the world for the first time.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) Voyager ZZ336 (c/n 1363), which is a military variant of the Airbus A330, was stripped of its dull grey scheme and given a new Union Flag inspired livery, at a cost of £900,000.

PM Jet
The jet was painted by Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group (MADG) at its Cambridge facility. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt 'Matty' Matthews

This price tag raised some eyebrows and brought the process of painting aircraft into the public eye. So, how is it done and why did it cost that much?

Painting Process

The process aligns very closely with that of other transport vehicles like cars and bikes. The first step is to take the old paint off. You can’t simply cover over the previous layer because this would add weight to the aircraft, something that is closely monitored because it impacts performance.

There are two ways of stripping paint off a jet, and the first is sanding. This technique is not typically used on commercial aircraft because it is very time consuming. Usually, the chosen method is to spray a solvent on the surface and let it naturally dissolve the remaining paint. This process usually takes up to 24 hours, but that’s a lot faster than sanding the entire aircraft.

What follows is the common process of masking the bits you don’t want to paint. These include the windows, antennas, intakes etc. Tape and sheeting are secured around these sensitive areas and once complete, the aircraft is ready to accept its first layer.

MoD Crown Copyright
The aircraft is masked with plastic sheeting to prevent paint from being applied to areas unequally. MoD Crown Copyright/Cpl Will Drummee RAF

High-volume low-pressure (HVLP) devices are used to apply the paint to the surface. They allow for good coverage and thin layers.

A primer, which is usually a zinc chromate, is applied first to the aircraft. Then additional layers of the topcoat are added until the desired effect is achieved.

Stencils are also added to create the required design, and the more complex they are, the longer it takes. Boris Johnson’s jet would be considered a relatively simple layout. The majority of the fuselage is plain white, while the tail is made up of red, white and blue for the Union Flag.

Stencil
Stencils allow designs to be added. This is one for the Union Flags located on the doors of the aircraft. MoD Crown Copyright/Cpl Will Drummee RAF

The final step is usually an inspection to make sure the paint work hasn’t negatively affected any systems or sensors. It’s also a chance to check that the overall finish of the paint job is up to standard.

The Cost

So how much does it cost? Well, it’s hard to say really, mainly because it varies so much from one case to another.

The figure of £900,000 seems quite a lot, and for a repaint alone it certainly is. But what the Government hasn’t mentioned is the additional work the aircraft is reported to have undergone while at Cambridge.

The data-driven blog Travel Stats Man calculated that it cost British Airways around $200,000 to paint each of its Boeing 747s. This figure took into account the paint costs, which it calculated to be around $30,000, and the labour, which stood at more than $170,000.

Now, Boris’ aircraft is notably smaller than a 747 but there are additional factors in the prime minister’s case which would push the price up.

Firstly, the main difference is that the RAF Voyager’s scheme is a one-off. The livery is original and therefore would not receive any bulk discount like BA presumably would have had with its fleet of 747s. The design itself would also cost money to create because an agency was likely to have been contracted to create it.

Tail
The main feature of the scheme is the Union Flag on the tail of the aircraft. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt 'Matty' Matthews

Secondly, the total cost is reported to include additional maintenance that will have taken place while the aircraft was at the facility. The Voyager is likely to have undergone a D-check, which is required to take place every six to ten years. The maintenance visit is one of the most thorough and demanding for an aircraft. In most cases the paint must be removed so the skin can be inspected for and damage. Therefore, it’s likely that a D-check was completed during the jet’s visit to the paint shop.

When considering all these factors, the price of £900,000 for a repaint is a little misleading. Taking into account all the other work that is reported to have taken place goes some way to explaining the large figure.