Qatar, Airbus Paint Defect Dispute Continues
Qatar Airways and Airbus have both taken legal action last month in the ongoing dispute over reports of coating defects on the company’s A350 jets. The airline is also seeking over $600 million in compensation from Airbus.
In November, an investigation conducted by Reuters found that multiple airlines, including Qatar Airways, reported coating problems and “early surface wear” with Airbus 350 jets. Qatar Airways grounded 20 of its 53 A350s, reportedly acting on orders from its local regulator due to witness reports of “blistered” and “pock-marked” appearances on its A350s.
Coating Problem Investigation
Originally, it was speculated that the desert heat in Qatar caused the degrading paint surface at least five other airlines have raised concerns. Citing messages from Finnair, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Lufthansa and Air France (on behalf of Air Caraibes) on a private maintenance message board used by Airbus and A350 operators, the earliest reports of paint problems dates back to 2016.
While Airbus and the airlines describe the issue as “cosmetic” and not a matter of safety, witnesses also report that the coating issues with the Qatar jets have lead to the exposed mesh developing its own gaps, exposing the carbon-fiber fuselage to possible damage.
Qatar Airways is claiming more than $600m in compensation from Airbus for surface flaws on A350s https://t.co/RkGJS2uCyb— AIRLIVE (@airlivenet) January 8, 2022
Airbus noted to Reuters that it is aware of the surface issues that in some cases had made visible a sub-layer of mesh designed to absorb lightning, which it is working to fix.
The A350, in service since 2015, is designed with ample protection to resist storms and is deployed around the world with high reliability, Airbus said in an emailed statement.
Europe’s first A350 operator Finnair reported paint damage a year after receiving its first A350, while Cathay Pacific stated similar problems just two weeks after taking their delivery of jets. Lufthansa said in 2017 that paint was peeling in areas as big as a square meter. The airline’s A350s were repainted by Airbus with new livery this year, reportedly free of charge under warranty.
“We can confirm that we have experienced some issues with A350 painting, and have been working together with ... Airbus to solve these issues,” a Finnair spokesperson said, adding the problem was “cosmetic, but naturally unfortunate.”
A350s have a carbon-fiber body instead of metal and utilize mesh for lightning conduction, which creates problems for surface preparation and painting. Another issue is paint expands with heat, while the carbon fiber does not.
In 2020, Airbus created a mulit-functional task force to study new material for lightning protection on future A350 jets.
"We have seen no effect on the structure of the aircraft and operators continue to fly with high levels of operational reliability," A350 Chief Engineer Miguel Angel LLorca Sanz said in an interview. "This is not at all affecting the lightning strike protection due to the substantial (safety) margins ... It is not at all an airworthiness issue.”
Qatar Airways has also halted deliveries of 23 more A350s on order, potentially costing the companies hundreds of millions of dollars, until a solution has been found.
Airbus told Reuters that it has “found a root cause,” but it has not been disclosed and airlines say they have not been notified by the company.
It was also reported that Qatar Airlines has previously had issues with Airbus, coming to light in May after the airline over the repainting of an A350 in livery for the FIFA World Cup in 2022.
Qatar Airways' Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker was quoted by Bloomberg at the time as saying the airline would refuse to take new aircraft from Airbus if it was not able to resolve the dispute.
Al Baker also said the airline would not take deliveries of any aircraft in 2020 or 2021 due to the coronavirus crisis, but later reached an agreement with Airbus over delays. Details were reportedly not disclosed.
According to the report, Gulf industry sources deny commercial motives for the grounding, noting Qatar badly needs jets for the World Cup. In 2019, Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy Secretary-General Hassan al-Thawadi said that officials are estimating between 1.2 and 1.7 million people in attendance for the tournament, which kicks off Nov. 21, 2022.
Recent Legal Action
At the beginning of December, Airbus announced that it was seeking independent legal assessment to resolve the dispute, citing that the two parties were unable to settle during discussions. The company also note that the surface paint-related findings were assessed and confirmed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), with no airworthiness impacts on the A350s.
“The attempt by this customer to misrepresent this specific topic as an airworthiness issue represents a threat to the international protocols on safety matters,” Airbus wrote in its statement. “While Airbus regrets the need to follow such a path, it has become necessary to defend its position and reputation.
“Airbus has worked actively with its customers in order to minimize the impact and any inconvenience caused by this in-service surface degradation on the aircraft. These solutions have all been dismissed by the above-mentioned customer without legitimate justification.”
Airbus officials confirmed the statement referred to Qatar Airways to Reuters.
According to Airbus, the A350 performs with a 99.5% operational reliability. At the time, they were also working to reestablish “constructive dialogue” with Qatar regarding the issues.
"We have worked actively with Qatar Airways in order to minimize the impact of this in-service surface degradation on their aircraft," Philippe Mhun, Airbus Executive Vice President Programmes & Services, told reporters.
Mhun added that solutions were offered to Qatar, including patches, repairs for the anti-lightning material or repainting of the aircraft, but the airline declined the offer. Reuters reports that industry sources said Qatar Airways is reluctant to implement short-term fixes without a full breakdown of the root cause.
"I have never seen anything like this. It is not only a problem between Airbus and Qatar Airways but it is also designed to prevent further damage to the A350's reputation with all operators," said aviation adviser Bertrand Grabowski.
On Dec. 20, Qatar announced that it had issued legal proceedings against Airbus in the Technology and Construction division of the High Court in London. It added that 21 of its A350 aircraft were grounded due to paint flaws.
“We have sadly failed in all our attempts to reach a constructive solution with Airbus in relation to the accelerated surface degradation condition adversely impacting the Airbus A350 aircraft,” stated the airline in a release. “Qatar Airways has therefore been left with no alternative but to seek a rapid resolution of this dispute via the courts.
“We strongly believe that Airbus must undertake a thorough investigation of this condition to conclusively establish its full root cause. Without a proper understanding of the root cause of the condition, it is not possible for Qatar Airways to establish whether any proposed repair solution will rectify the underlying condition.”
“Airbus received a formal legal claim in the English courts filed by Qatar Airways, relating to the dispute over the degradation of surface and paint on certain of Qatar Airways' A350XWB aircraft,” wrote the company in a statement the same day. “Airbus is in the process of analyzing the contents of the claim. Airbus intends to vigorously defend its position.”
Then, at the beginning of the month, a 30-page court document showed that the airline was seeking compensation from Airbus for the surface flaws on its A350 jetliners. For the partial grounding, Qatar is seeking $618 million in contractual compensation, with an additional $4 million for each day the jets remain out of service.
Of that amount, $76 million is for the 2022 FIFA World Cup-painted A350. The jet has been in France for a year, needing 980 repair patches on the exposed lightning shield, according to industry sources. To prepare for the soccer tournament, Qatar is reportedly bringing A380s out of retirement.
The airline also requested that judges order Airbus to not attempt delivering any more of the aircraft until the design issue has been resolved.
"Airbus restates there is no airworthiness issue," a spokesperson said, adding this had been confirmed by European regulators.