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Ask a group of airline executives about what keeps them up at night and most will likely say out-of-control fuel costs. According to the International Air Transport Association, the fuel bill for all airlines topped $180 billion in 2018 - up 20.5 percent from the year prior - accounting for about 23.5 percent of the industry’s operating expenses. It’s no wonder then that many airplane makers are working on creating more fuel-efficient planes, says Christina Baker, global materials technology manager in PPG’s aerospace business. 

Baker, a chemist who ran her own materials company for four years, is responsible for developing innovative materials used in aerospace window transparencies. Many of the recent technological innovations in the airline industry have been focused on fuel reduction and on creating planes that can fly longer and faster. “Those have been the big trends for the last five years,” she says. “Airlines also want to create better flying experiences.” 

Keeping light out

PPG’s aerospace business is engineering several innovative products. For instance, the company developed window transparencies with PPG SOLARON BLUE PROTECTION™ UV+ blocking technology that stops over 99 percent of ultraviolet light (UV) and over 50 percent of high-energy visible (HEV) blue light from getting through. Blocking this light is important, as UV and HEV blue light exposure at cruising altitudes of 35,000 feet can be three times higher than exposure at sea level. Additionally, blocking this light can reduce maintenance costs as blocking UV light can reduce interior degradation and color fadeout.

The company also produces electrically dimmable cabin windows, which allows passengers to darken a window with a press of a button, rather than having to pull down a shade. These kinds of innovations are commonplace at PPG. “We’re always looking at how we push out where the current line is,” Baker says. “How do we jump ahead of the obvious next steps to get a breakthrough for our customers?” 

Testing and more testing

Developing new products for the airline industry takes a lot of work, Baker says, in part because the sector is cautious when it comes to introducing new parts or materials. When working on innovations, PPG’s scientists follow a gatekeeper process while developing and testing different materials. The company’s design and engineering teams work closely with the scientists to ensure that new additions fit with existing airline parts and specifications.  

With PPG Solaron Blue Protection™ UV+ blocking technology, Baker knew manufacturers were worried about UV rays getting through airplane windows, but no one had been talking about protecting passengers from HEV light. Once they identified that issue, PPG’s team of scientists went to work. “We’re dealing with the hottest temperatures on the ground and the coldest temperatures in the atmosphere,” Baker says. “Materials need to perform across these ranges and provide durability through the aircraft pressurization while maintaining perfect optics.”

PPG also has large facilities where parts can be tested at flying-like speeds to make sure a window doesn’t fracture - that’s a key part of the process, Baker says.

Over the next few years, the airline industry will continue to evolve, perhaps in more significant ways than it has in the past. Consumer spaceflight could become a reality, while faster and more sophisticated planes will likely come to market. 

PPG is already developing materials to deploy in these more modern craft. “Some of the traditional materials won’t be the ones to provide a full solution,” she says. “For us, every new design is an exciting challenge.”