In October, Leading Edge Aviation Services, a major provider of aviation painting and related services, reached the 600 mark on its Continental Airlines account. That's about how many planes it's painted for the legacy carrier since 1994.

"We've carved out a good niche market," says LEAS CEO Mike Manclark, who expects the company soon to double the $23 million in revenue it's earned this year. Based in Santa Ana, Calif., LEAS recently inked a contract with Delta Air Lines to repaint 400 aircraft from Northwest Airlines as a result of the merger and ultimate acquisition approved by the US Dept. of Justice on Oct. 29.

"Ironically, we were just in the finishing stages of a major fleet painting job for Northwest, and now we'll be converting them to Delta," Manclark says. "We've gotten extra business from mergers and consolidations and also from changes in the affiliation of regional carriers with the majors."

LEAS has seen its business grow substantially since it launched operations in 1989 to provide paint "detailing" of aircraft. In the last five years it painted more than 1,200 aircraft. In September, the company converted 22 of ExpressJet Airlines' planes to Continental colors. It also won a $12.5 million deal with Air Canada to paint 100 aircraft over the next few years. Work has included painting about 200 planes for United Airlines, 50 for Southwest Airlines and 200 for United Parcel Service.

Effectively painting an aircraft can serve to reduce its drag by up to 8% while helping to protect metallic surfaces from weather and corrosion and thereby preserving original surface quality. The process also encourages a thorough exterior inspection.

"You're on that thing from wrist to elbow, so it's pretty close work," Manclark explains. "We have all kinds of [US] FAA safety considerations we pay attention to when we clean and strip. We also point out deficiencies to the carrier. Some things we can fix, but others have to be done elsewhere."

Aircraft painting requires massive amounts of material. It takes about 60-70 gal. to paint a 737 while a 747 calls for 150-180 gal. Curbing the amount of volatile organic compound vapors dispersed into the atmosphere is a big consideration. "We have to be mindful of the VOC content," recognizes Manclark. "But the materials are improving all the time. We mainly use polyurethane coatings and high-solids material that are more environmentally friendly."

While airlines sign contracts for regular service, scheduling the job is often irregular. On average, commercial aircraft need to be painted every 5-7 years, posing an unavoidable logistics challenge for fleet managers. "Airlines want their aircraft to be in the air generating revenue as much as possible," says Manclark. "We have to be flexible and efficient. We've gradually improved our turnaround times from 14 days to 12, and now we can sometimes do a job in a week."

Stripping and painting a 737 takes about seven days. For a 747 it takes almost two weeks. LEAS has a $20 million painting facility in Victorville, Calif., that can house a 747-400, and it recently built a second hangar there, where it also has two bays for 757s. In addition, it has a wash, strip and preparation facility in Greenville, S.C., a five-hangar painting site in Amarillo, Tex., and another painting facility in Greenville, Miss., where the Delta-Northwest work will take place.