Air New Zealand plane

Evolution of Aircraft Paint and Livery Design

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Humble Beginnings

Bare-Metal Spitfire MJ271
Bare-Metal Spitfire MJ271. Source:

In the first decades following the invention of the airplane, paint was expensive, heavy, and had poor adherence. For these reasons, airplane manufacturers would leave the exterior of their aircraft bare, or, with minimal markings such as titles or emblems.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that innovations in paint and scientific research on corrosion gave airlines incentive to paint or polish their planes.

Paint or Polish?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires aircraft manufacturers and airlines to abide by certain policies regarding corrosion prevention. The two standard methods employed to prevent exterior corrosion are polishing or painting. Some aircraft are made of composite materials such as carbon fiber, fiberglass, and kevlar; these materials require aircraft to be painted.1

Airlines must consider several factors when determining whether to polish or paint their aircraft—namely marketing, cost, and environmental impact.2

Regarding marketing, it comes down to preference. Some airlines appreciate the “versatility and creativity” of painted planes, while others like the “sleek and timeless” look of polished aircraft.2

On average, paint adds approximately 600 to 1,200 pounds of weight to a commercial aircraft.3 This added weight translates to higher fuel consumption.

Despite the extra fuel expense, it costs between 0.06 and 0.30 percent more to polish commercial planes. This is because the maintenance of polished aircraft must be done more often (roughly 3 times a year) to prevent corrosion, while a new coat of paint is only needed every few years.

The environmental impact of painted liveries can be greater than polished ones. Fortunately, painting facilities are equipped with the means to prevent or entrap harmful emissions.

 Today, most airlines opt to have their planes painted; this can be attributed to the flexibility and creative potential of painted liveries and slightly lower maintenance costs.

Example: Air New Zealand Limited

In 1965, Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) was renamed Air New Zealand Limited.4

For decades, Air New Zealand left the bottom fuselage of their planes as polished bare metal. It wasn’t until 1996 that they adopted a fully painted livery design.

In 1973, Air New Zealand introduced a new livery design that included their signature “Koru” on the vertical of their aircraft for the first time. The symbol combines the Māori mangōpare (the Māori symbol for a hammerhead shark) and the koru, a new fern frond unfurling.5 “The Mangōpare represents strength, tenacity, and resilience…the koru [is] the sign of new life, renewal, and hope for the future.”6

Air New Zealand’s modern livery features a clean black and white design. Some aircraft in their fleet display a fully black livery in support of New Zealand’s All Blacks national rugby team.

Promotional Liveries

Air New Zealand received lots of attention when it unveiled its first Lord of the Rings promotional livery in 2002. The livery was applied as a decal which weighed over 132 lbs (60 kg).7 Many of the airline’s flights had routes over the landscapes used for Middle Earth.

Decal application of Air New Zealand's: “Airline to Middle-earth” livery featuring  Frodo (played by Elijah Wood)
Decal application of Air New Zealand’s: “Airline to Middle-earth” livery. Source:

Later, in 2003, Air New Zealand unveiled a livery for the third installment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Return of the King.8

An Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 - which was painted for the release of the 'Return of the King'. Two of the airline's newer planes will get a similar paint job. Photo / NZ Herald
Air New Zealand’s Return of the King Livery featuring Legolas and Aragorn. Source:

A decade later, in 2012, Air New Zealand released their promotional livery for The Hobbit.

Air New Zealand's "Hobbit Themed" Boeing 777 Aircraft.
Air New Zealand’s “Hobbit Themed” Boeing 777 Aircraft. Source:

Promotional advertisement partnerships, like those of Air New Zealand and New Line Cinema, are mutually beneficial. The promotional livery brought attention to the franchise while also bringing attention to beautiful travel destinations in New Zealand.

By Joshua Knopf

Joshua Knopf is a Production Expeditor at Pacmin Studios. In addition to mixing and matching colors for silkscreen printed decals, Josh writes creative content for our newsletters.


  1. Composite Aircraft: 4 Popular Composite Aircraft Built to Date.
  2. Painting versus Polishing of Airplane Exterior Surfaces.
  3. Should You Paint or Polish Your Airplane?
  4. Why Most Aircraft are Painted White.
  5. TEAL becomes Air New Zealand.
  6. Customer First Culture.
  7. The symbol of our character.
  8. Air NZ Unlocks The Secrets Of Middle Earth….

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