Clear skies ahead...or more turbulence?

By Tim Wright | August 4, 2009

The airline industry has had a difficult history in the last decade with 9/11, fuel cost escalation and now, the recession. Confident business will turn around, coatings manufacturers are helping airlines reduce costs while innovating more environmentally friendly coatings.

The skies have been anything but friendly for U.S. airlines during the recession. The Air Transport Association of America said airline revenue plunged 26% in June. That's the eighth straight month of losses. The group also reported that the number of passengers traveling on U.S. airlines in June fell 6.5%, while the average price to fly one mile-called passenger unit revenue-fell 20.7% compared with June 2008.

Such declines do not bode well for the coatings manufacturers supplying the airlines, who have naturally felt their own pressure from revenue and profit losses.

"The recession and escalation in fuel costs have forced airlines to review their airplane purchases and make adjustments," said Chris Athanasopoulos, international marketing director, Deft Aerospace Coatings. "A reduction in new airplanes or delaying delivery has reduced the need for coatings.

"With airline revenues tumbling airlines in return are delayingrepainting," said Athanasopoulos. "Reduction in paint needs affect income and in turn margins."

The commercial airline industry operates in a very competitive environment where margins are razor thin. Any significant fluctuations in costs or revenues can have severe impacts on profitability.

"In down times, airlines will often postpone non-critical operations, such as repainting aircraft," said John Griffin, general manager for the Americas, AkzoNobel Aerospace Coatings. "However, a significant amount of paint is used during required maintenance operations, and airlines will repaint aircraft as part of a rebranding effort to improve the airline's image, which often takes place during difficult times.

"Volumes are lower than in previous years, but our airline customers still need our products and services to operate," Griffin said.

All segments of the aerospace market are facing similar challenges with some worse off than others. "The corporate and general aviation segment is the hardest hit because the costs associated with private aircraft are discretionary and often the first to be cut in a recession," said Griffin. "Commercial manufacturing is relatively strong by historic standards, but this sector will feel the impact of fewer new orders, and increased cancellations as they work-off their production backlogs."

The defense segment is less volatile due to aircraft maintenance requirements and long term funding plans for new programs.

"The military segment is in better condition due to the manufacture of several new airplanes including the F-35, F-22, C-17, F-18, F-16, F-15, C-130 and the refurbishment of older models," said Athanasopoulos. "Cargo carriers and private jets are facing the same problems faced by commercial airlines with the recession and reduction in business."

Meeting customer demands

Coatings manufacturers continue to support the needs of their customers by looking for ways to improve service, efficiency and reduce costs wherever possible.

"We place greater emphasis on developing products that reduce cycle time, improve durability, and have less impact on the environment," said Griffin. "Every dollar or euro saved by painting an aircraft faster, delaying paint operations due to better durability and weathering characteristics, and reducing hazardous waste disposal contributes to the airline's success."

It is no secret that the future of aerospace coatings is greener products. The market is demanding lower VOC/HAP levels and a reduction in toxic constituents with no compromise in performance.

"Customers demanding greener products that also reduce cycle times, improve performance and durability to help reduce costs is a major challenge for our technical team," said Griffin. "We have made significant advances that will deliver greener, higher performance products."

AkzoNobel Aerospace Coatings recently launched the Aerowave series of waterborne structural coatings, which includes a corrosion inhibiting primer, topcoat and composite primer, all approved by Airbus and all with a VOC content less than 250g/L.

For the general aviation segment, AkzoNobel has launched Alumigrip 4001 and 4101 chrome-free, high solids primers. The Alumigrip 4001 is a dual purpose primer and sanding surfacer, eliminating one step in the exterior painting process.

"We are putting significant resources towards eliminating chrome from all our products," said Griffin. "Utilizing magnesium-based pigments has proven, in laboratory testing, to be as effective as chromates in preventing corrosion on high strength aluminum alloys. Also, unlike traditional chrome-free primers, this new technology is not reliant on chrome pretreatments to be effective. We expect the technology to be approved by the military and commercial sectorsand commercialized inearly 2010."

Deft has continued its development of reduced VOC primers and topcoats. It offers complete chrome-free paint systems, conversion coatings, primers and improved exterior durability topcoats for both military and commercial markets.

On the military front, Deft's current projects include the F-15 repaint program at Robins Air Force Base with Deft 02GN084 chrome-free primer; the F-35 JSF program for new airplanes and Boeing's Apache Helicopter programwith Deft 44GN098 chrome-free primer; Boeing Military has approved and is using Deft 02GN084 and 44GN098 for their F-15 program; the A-10 program at Nellis Air Force Base with the 02GN84 chrome-free primer; Nellis is also using the 02GN84 on their F-16 program; Lockheed has approved the use of 44GN098 for the F-22 Raptor program; and lastly, Boeing KC-767 has approved the use of 02GN084 for the Italian fuel tanker program.

In terms of primer technology, Deft was the first paint company to develop new generation fluorinated APC (advanced performance coating) poly�urethane topcoats qualified to MIL-PRF-85285 specification. "The U.S. Air Force is exclusively using this material as the exterior topcoat on all of their airplanes," said Athanasopoulos. "Fluor�inated topcoats provide five to seven years of exterior durability where the conventional polyurethanes provide at best two to three years of exterior durability. The first airplane to receive the Deft APC was the C-17 in 1997-1998."

Water-based technology for primers has been around for more than 20 years, according to Athanasopoulos. "Deft has been providing commercial and military primers qualified to the Army, Boeing, Bombardier, Gulfstream, Lockheed Martin, the Navy and Northrop Grumman specifications," he said. "In addition, Mapaero, a Deft licensee has qualified the Deft water-based primer chemistry and are manufacturing it in France for Airbus Industries. The advantages of water-based primer technology has dominated the primer business and looks like it will eventually replace high-solids solvent-based products.

In terms of topcoat technology, Deft has been involved in the development of water-based polyurethane topcoats and have qualified to MIL-PRF-85285 specification, but according to Athanasopoulos, use of such product is limited and does not look like it will replace the fluorinated technology.

Deft has made a commitment to the development of a complete chrome-free system for the military including chrome-free conversion coating, chrome-free primer and APC fluorinated topcoat. "Our research effort in the development of a chrome-free conversion coating is progressing and we are looking to filed test our chrome-free system some time in the third quarter of this year with the F-15 program," said Athanasopoulos.

The Boeing Commercial 787 program recently qualified Deft to BMS 10-125 exterior decorative topcoat for composite airplanes using fluorinated chemistry, and BMS 10-126 exterior primary topcoat for composite structures. All Nippon Airways' (ANA) launch for the 787 will be the first airline to receive the BMS-125 fluorinated exterior topcoat.

Clear skies ahead

Despite the current recession and its effect on business, the coatings manufacturers we spoke with are optimistic that business will pick up.

"The aerospace market in general is cyclical, particularly the commercial and general aviation segments. While volumes are down commensurate with the overall economy, we know that it will pick up again in the future," said Griffin. "AkzoNobel is in this business for the long haul and we continue to invest to make sure we can deliver the products and technologies our customers require in the future. The cyclical nature of this market will cause it to rebound as the world economy recovers. Over the long term demand for air travel will continue to grow with the increase in world populations."

"The future of the aerospace coatings market is looking very good due to the need to provide improved and environmentally-friendly coatings and the need for new technologies to protect new exterior surfaces," said Athanasopoulos. "This will be a challenge for paint manufacturers and it will be important to invest in research moving forward.

"Airline industry woes will continue until we see improvements in the global business environment, improvements in the recession and an increase in air travel," said Athanasopoulos. "In addition, the cost of fuel will need to stabilize. With these factors under control we can again start seeing a healthy airline industry."

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