A few weeks ago at an aircraft painting facility, a very unusual event occurred.

A plane rolled into the hangar for repainting. That, of course, in and of itself isn’t very remarkable at all. What happened to this plane during that visit due to team communications was extraordinary.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong kind of extraordinary.

This plane left, destined to become razor blades.

Here’s why.

Commercial airliners come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and if you’ve been in the industry long you’ve seen them change from one livery to another. Have you ever wondered what all goes into repainting one?

Let’s say that you buy an airplane in a color you don’t like. Red, for instance.

Communications breakdown: seeing red (airplanes)

You want to refresh your paint with something hip, like GOL.

Communications breakdown: Coolest aircraft livery ever
GOL has the coolest special livery ever, by far.

You’re going to have to strip the old paint off, clean, prep the surface, and finally repaint. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Here’s what the first half of that workflow typically looks like.

Communications breakdown: Applying the paint stripper to the planeCommunications breakdown: Stripper clinging to the paintCommunications breakdown: a melting airplaneCommunications breakdown: washing off paint stripper

Strip. Clean. ?? Profit.

Aviation, as everyone knows, is highly regulated. Good communications always have the potential to be a challenge. There are documents, more documents, and documents on how to read other documents.

Repainting of Aircraft and Components is one example. Lots of content, instructions, etc. that the reader needs to understand. For instance, inside the section on how to apply the paint stripper are the dwell time instructions.


c. Dwell time:
Depending on the stripper being used, paint system, film thickness, age of paint system, original surface treatment, temperature; recommended dwell time will vary from one to four hours…

One to four hours, depending on conditions.

During that time, the paint on our plane should be melting away as planned, looking something like this.

Communications breakdown led to a 737 being scrapped for aluminum damage

In this step, a chemical reaction is happening that’s milling the surface. Normally this should be down to .050 thousandths of an inch. If there’s any damage done, a maximum allowance of 10% is permitted.

Here’s where the (bad) extraordinary occurs.

The airplane that rolled into the doors at this paint facility had the stripper left on it for sixteen hours. The paint stripper sat there eating away at the aluminum the entire time.

As a result, the skin on this unlucky airplane was completely corroded. There are badly pitted spots everywhere on the aluminum. Without a doubt, communications errors played a part in this.

Communications breakdown led to aluminum skin pitting from paint stripper

Communications breakdown led to aluminum skin pitting on this 737 fuselage

Overnight, this airplane went from airworthy to scrapped.

Repairing the damaged aluminum is far too expensive to fix. All the parts will be robbed from it, of course, but this airplane is destined to be turned into a soda can or razor blades far, far earlier than its siblings.

A breakdown in communications here led to a very negative ROI.

Some rough back-of-the-napkin math here to calculate a loss of revenue…

Market price of a used 737NG aircraft  (depending on age, usage, condition, etc.) is roughly in the $15M+ ballpark.

Then, you have to factor in the future revenue this aircraft would have generated over it’s lifespan. A short-haul airframe like a Boeing 737 can get 60k flights on it before needed aging aircraft maintenance procedures approved by the FAA.

We’ll use Southwest’s utilization numbers here, since they do a good job of keeping their fleet moving. (note: this was not a Southwest plane)

Average flights per day: 5 @ 11 hours

60,000 lifetime flights in days: 12,000 days

If that had flown every day, it could fly for 32.9 years before hitting the cycle limit. That’s unrealistically aggressive though, due to maintenance needs, flight schedules, etc. so we’ll bump that down a little.

12,000 days / 239 operating days per year: 50.2 years @ 5 flights per day!

Southwest’s average seats count per 737 : 151. According to Expedia, the average domestic ticket price is $496, which means that the revenue per flight is $74,896. Multiple that by five flights a day for 12,000 days?

Total cost of loss: $4.5B of lost revenue potential.


If a routine livery paint job is ~$140k (not a crazy one like GOL), then that means the ROI of this one event was a staggering -3,209,938%.

This doesn’t even include the idle time for workers, damage to reputation, loss of goodwill, etc.

Communications don’t have to be challenging.

This was an exceedingly rare event, no question about it.

That said, haven’t we all dealt with challenges that stemmed from the same root cause – communicating with other people? It sounds basic, but the moving pieces of good communication can be incredibly complex, especially in a hectic environment of the daily operation.

As SynapseMX‘s CEO, my day to day work revolves around providing pragmatic, human-centered solutions to help people stay in sync with each other automatically, understanding how tasks that are in-work might impact them.

For instance, SynapseMX’s algorithms can detect that a paint stripping task card has been open longer than normal for this customer on this type aircraft given these temperature conditions. Then, we can start notifying people – email, SMS, or even a phone call. If we don’t hear from the folks on the ground, we can even escalate up to leadership.

Our mission is to make maintenance solutions so intuitive that “the software” becomes a trusted partner that helps your organization thrive.

After all, it’s hard not to be inspired by the opportunity to help people prevent $20M+ losses over to a communications breakdown.