United Airlines will resume its aircraft painting program, but its use of an outside vendor has stoked anger amongst a wide cross section of employees who view the project as wasteful during a time of austerity.
United Airlines Resumes Aircraft Paint Program, Sparking Controversy
In a memo to employees shared with Live and Let’s Fly, United announced it would resume its aircraft painting program after suspending it when the pandemic started:
The newly-approved 2021 plan calls for painting the 50 neediest aircraft first based on numerous factors including their most recent appearance audit findings, securing capacity with our vendors, obtaining network allocation and consideration of maintenance or storage events that are already on the schedule.
The project will begin later this month with one line for widebody aircraft and another for narrowbody aircraft. The speed of the program will be based upon how consumer demand develops over the year, which impacts aircraft utilization.
Employees from many work groups reached out to Live and Let’s Fly and the sentiment was near unanimous: how dare United repaint aircraft while it lays off employees and accepts taxpayer funding? If painting is so essential, why not have the painting done in-house?
However, I reached out to a United maintenance worker for his take on the incident and was told:
“Look, it’s not that simple. We cannot just do the painting ourselves. We used to do touchups at some stations, but we are talking about aircraft that really need paint. This isn’t a vanity project and should never have been put off in the first place.”
I also reached out to a pilot, who explained that if paint issues are left unresolved, they can turn into serious maintenance issues.
United Airlines refused to comment for my story, though the pilot shared an internal clarification employees received after many protested the paint job announcement:
To clarify the purpose of our paint line activity in 2021, the objective is only to address the appearance of aircraft that are in poor paint condition. They will of course receive the new livery but that is not the driving goal of the painting that will be accomplished during 2021.
Still, a flight attendant insisted that the program represented toxic optics:
“They [United] want to tell me they care about us when they choose paint over people? What an insult to all of us. What an insult to American taxpayers.”
I took the picture above just a week ago at Chicago O’Hare. Lately, I’ve noticed many aircraft that require paint jobs. While the attitude of many employees that saving jobs should be prioritized over repainting is not unreasonable, deferred maintenance can lead to far greater and more expensive issues later on. Furthermore, aircraft like the plane above simply looks unprofessional. Here, it seems to me that United cannot be faulted for resuming its repainting program.
As for whether it should be done in-house is another issue. While issues of comparative and competitive advantage generally come into play, the pandemic has idled many United maintenance workers, at least two of which told Live and Let’s Fly they would be happy to do the paint themselves. If liability and safety issues can be overcome, this seems like a reasonable way to use taxpayer money to keep workers gainfully employed (versus simply outsourcing the painting to contractors).
Should the United Airlines aircraft paint program continue during this time? Should painting be completed only by employees?