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Why Are Most Commercial Airplanes White?

a large white airplane against a blue sky

An air bus style airplane. (Luke McConville, Flickr)

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . . well, it actually is a plane, and it’s probably painted white. White has become the standard color for airplanes’ exteriors. While stylish, it’s also a calculated decision by many airlines.

White essentially reflects sunlight instead of absorbing it, like other colors do. This is great for keeping the plane’s interior temperature down.

White And Heat

It’s the same as getting into a white car on a sunny day—its inside is probably cooler than a black car’s would be. And since constant exposure to sunlight often causes many colors to fade anyways thanks to oxidation, white becomes a practical choice.

White is easy to spot, whether in the air, on the ground, or in the case of a crash, in the sea. And it’s easy to see cracks or chips in the paint when that paint is white. This detection is important because dirt and moisture can quickly collect in these chips, becoming sites of corrosion that could eat away at the aircraft’s body.

Sun Damage

This is one reason, in fact, that planes are usually painted at all instead of being left as polished metal: painted metal more readily resists corrosion than unpainted metal.

You’ll often see plastic, fiberglass, or carbon fiber painted white on planes, too. This is because these parts of the plane are easily susceptible to sun damage, which the white paint helps prevent.

So why aren’t all planes pure white? Advertising. After a white base, airlines will often paint their brand name on the side and their colors on the tail of the plane.

Want to think more about airplanes? We recently explained more about why your airplane ride probably didn’t make you sick. You could also learn more about how airplane turbulence is changing due to global warming.

Thank you to Stuart Croll of North Dakota State University for reviewing this episode’s script.

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