Airbus vs Qatar Airways: The latest in escalating A350 dispute
January 26 2022 05:29 PM
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Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

What is the Airbus-Qatar Airways dispute about?

Qatar Airways, one of Airbus’s biggest customer airlines, has found that some of its Airbus A350 XWB jets – one of the newest, most efficient long-haul aircraft in the skies today – suffers from “accelerated surface degradation” manifesting in around eight kinds of defects. The issue has caused the fuselage on some A350s to appear almost shattered in places, exposing the under a layer of expanded copper foil. In some areas of these aircraft, the mesh has expanded areas of nothing, leaving the outer carbon-fibre fuselage totally exposed.
On one side, Qatar Airways doesn’t believe Airbus has properly determined the root cause of the issue and points out that current explanations suggest the condition itself could be inherent in the design of the A350 and the procedures Airbus uses to manufacture the aircraft.
Qatar Airways says no satisfactory repairs for the condition have been proposed by Airbus.
For one affected jet alone, Airbus recommended approximately 900 patch repairs to the damage resulting from the condition, an offer Qatar Airways rejected given it vastly exceeds the normal handful of patch repairs that would be expected on any one aircraft over its life, and still does not determine the root cause of the issue.
Qatar Airways reaffirmed that nothing can be achieved until the root-cause is known, and so – in the absence of a proper analysis of the root-cause and satisfactory repair proposals, twenty-one aircraft of the Qatar Airways A350 fleet are presently grounded because they are considered unairworthy by Qatar’s Civil Aviation Authority.
The European plane maker Airbus continues to insist there is no risk to the A350’s safety. The manufacturer has consistently maintained that the surface-degradation issues are non-structural, an assessment partially shared by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
EASA did, however, issue a preliminary warning that patches of the anti-lightning system may have been poorly fitted on over a dozen Airbus A350 jets. This warning was only issued after major American carrier Delta Air Lines revealed it also faced so-called “paint issues.”

Is the dispute heading to the courts?

Both Airbus and Qatar Airways will have their dispute heard in the High Court, England.
Qatar Airways is claiming more than $600m in compensation from planemaker Airbus for surface flaws on A350 jetliners, according to a court document shedding new light on a growing business feud worth $4mn a day. The Gulf carrier is also asking British judges to order Airbus not to attempt to deliver any more of the jets until what it describes as a design defect has been fixed.

Have other airlines with the A350 suffered the same issue?

We know at least five other airlines, including Finnair and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific have raised similar concerns since the Airbus A350 entered commercial service — but it’s worth remembering that the relationship between an airline and aircraft manufacturer is often a very private one, and both sides are typically keen to resolve any issues without publicity.

What is the latest escalation in the dispute?

In a sharp escalation from the manufacturer – Airbus has unexpectedly cancelled a $6bn contract with Qatar Airways for 50 of its new A321neo passenger jets, an entirely separate aircraft order. The affected A321neo order originally dates to 2011, and the Qatari carrier was set to deploy the new long-range single aisle jets across its global route network with a brand-new Economy Class and adapted ‘mini Qsuite’ in the front of the cabin. Qatar Airways called Airbus’s decision announced on Friday “a matter of considerable regret and frustration” and the cancellation itself will be challenged as part of the wider court case.

How is Qatar Airways managing with over 20 long-haul aircraft out of service?

The 21 A350s grounded in Doha has prompted Qatar Airways to reactivate some of its semi-retired A380 fleet, as well as A330s. The airline is also signing agreements with other airlines, such as Oman Air and Cathay Pacific, to lease more aircraft to compensate for the loss of available seats as the affected A350s remain stored. Most are parked on a taxiway adjacent to one of the main runways at Hamad International Airport in Doha.

What’s the relationship like between Airbus and Qatar Airways until this point?

The relationship between an aircraft manufacturer and its airline customer is often far deeper rooted than may first appear. While on the surface such deals may seem to be a simple example of a commercial transaction between two parties, the vendor, and the consumer, in the case of airlines it’s often a wider reflection of loyalty, diplomatic relations, and trust.
On the outskirts of Toulouse, France in February 2018, I joined individuals from across the aviation sector to be a part of the world’s first delivery of what would become the Airbus flagship, the A350-1000 XWB. The grand affair, a black-tie gala dinner celebration for global launch customer Qatar Airways, took place at Airbus’ Delivery Centre, a private terminal on the Airbus site where factory-fresh aircraft are handed over from the manufacturer to the airline customer. It’s from here Airbus jets are prepared for what’s known as the ‘delivery’, a brand-new aircraft’s journey from the factory to its airline hub.
The delivery would mark a new chapter in Airbus’ history for a variety of reasons. Not only was this sought-after A350 jet finally ready to enter the world of commercial service — a jet Airbus knew would shake up the long-haul market with new efficiencies and go on to replace dozens of ageing Boeing 777s worldwide — but the night would mark the end of the final day of Fabrice Brégier as President of Airbus Commercial Aircraft.
A somewhat emotional Brégier took to the podium and delivered his last speech as President of Airbus with the impressive backdrop of the first A350-1000, wearing Qatar’s longstanding livery: Slate grey paint draped upon a shiny new fuselage with the famous burgundy ‘Qatar’ printed in billboard titles.
As Brégier reflected on his time at Airbus and how flying had evolved over the last decade, he left HE Akbar al-Baker, Group CEO of Qatar Airways with a firm word of reassurance: “I’m sure that Guillaume Faury, who is taking over the responsibility of Airbus Commercial Aircraft, will continue to work with the utmost dedication to ensure that each aircraft satisfies your requirements.” With Qatar being known across the industry as a customer airline with immense attention to detail, Brégier’s words of reassurance were deliberate.
Later that year, Guillaume Faury, around six months into his position as President Airbus Commercial Aircraft, commented on Qatar’s decision to upsize its existing A350 order, converting more from the smaller -900 to the larger -1000. “Qatar Airways is renowned for its standards of excellence, and we are pleased the A350-1000 delivers to their expectations, being the aircraft of choice to seamlessly increase capacity in unprecedented comfort on its growing long-haul routes,” he said.
The relationship between the two had been business as usual. Deliveries continued to flow, A350s were deployed globally, and the dispatch reliability (essentially a judgement on how reliable an aircraft is based on the percentage of scheduled departures that do not incur a delay, cancellation, turn back or diversion) was considered ‘excellent’ by Qatar Airways and almost all other A350 operators, including Finnair, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines.
In December 2020, and in the middle of what is still an ongoing pandemic, Qatar had flown an A350 to Ireland to be painted in a special livery marking the forthcoming FIFA World Cup which the Gulf state will host in winter 2022. Once the A350 was stripped back, ‘significant abnormalities’ were found under the original paint that would lead to what has now become an unprecedented public dispute between two of the largest aviation players on Earth.

How has the aviation industry reacted?

Airline executives are surprised at the escalations – it’s also unprecedented for a manufacturer to cancel an aircraft order of one of its most important airline customers. Earlier, one industry CEO – a supplier to both the manufacturer and to airlines including Qatar Airways – said: “Faury may have to rely on Macron’s help here to broker some sort of resolution. This is not Airbus’ usual approach or style, which is quite disconcerting, and there is clearly an issue here”. French President Emmanuel Macron has been able to broker Airbus disputes in the past, including negotiating the settlement in the US-EU Boeing-Airbus subsidy row.
Less than months ago, French President Emmanuel Macron made a state visit to Qatar, meeting with Qatar's Amir, His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. It’s understood the Airbus-Qatar dispute was raised. Macron also expressed appreciation to Qatar for helping to organise the latest evacuation to France of more Afghans.

* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir



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