New Airline Announces Airbus Coating Defects
Earlier this week, the owner of British Airways, International Airlines Group, reported that it has experienced surface degradation on its Airbus A350 jets, similar to paint defects Qatar Airways found on its aircraft.
The ongoing legal battle regarding coating defects between Airbus and Qatar continues, as Airbus has asked a judge to award $220 million in damages over two undelivered jets. Qatar Airways also announced last week that the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority has revoked the Airworthiness Review Certificate on 22 of its A350 aircraft, citing that they have been damaged.
New Report, Legal Proceedings
According to recent reports from Reuters, British Airways owner IAG has experienced surface degradation on its Airbus 350 jets. IAG Chief Executive Luis Gallego said that these issues do not impact the airworthiness of the aircraft.
“We can see the problem in daily checks but mainly when you stop the aircraft for the first C-check,” he said in an interview, adding that “we have very young aircraft, so the level of defects that we see maybe is not comparable to others.”
British Airways parent IAG has reportedly noticed paint damage on its Airbus A350 fleet, but not to the same extent as Qatar Airways.https://t.co/mZ7Iq349od— Forbes Middle East (@Forbes_MENA_) March 2, 2022
The C-check is a longer inspection conducted after a certain amount of time or usage, typically around three years. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has not identified any airworthiness problems regarding the A350 jets.
“We have informed in our case EASA, and EASA told us that the level of degradation that we are experiencing doesn't impact the airworthiness of the aircraft,” he said. “We have a young fleet of 350s and usually you can see the defect when you have the opportunity to stop the aircraft for a check.”
Gallego added that the company is still accepting the jets and, if the situation continues, they will continue to accept the aircraft.
The news comes as Airbus and Qatar have filed requests for damages against each other in a United Kingdom Court, pending a hearing in April.
Following Airbus’ cancellation of its $6 billion contract with Qatar last month, Qatar asked the court to reinstate the order for the 50 Airbus passenger jets in a court filing. If not granted, the airline requested the judge to award them $600 million in damages.
Not long after, on Feb. 28, Airbus also filed court documentation requesting it be awarded $220 million in damages over the two undelivered jets. The company noted it wants to recover millions of dollars of credits awarded to the airline.
An Airbus spokesman told reporters that a counter-claim was a “last resort and followed many fruitless attempts to find mutually beneficial solutions.”
The same day, Qatar released a statement saying the High Court issued an injunction against Airbus, ordering they must no do anything between the date of the order and the hearing in April to adversely affect its ability to comply with any court order that Qatar might obtain from the cancellation of the contract. The airline added “neither Qatar Airways nor its legal team are aware of any efforts by Airbus to try to resolve the situation in an amicable way; in fact, the actual situation is to the contrary.”
Currently, 22 of Qatar’s A350 aircraft have been grounded, with the QCAA citing damages resulting from the A350 Accelerated Surface Degradation Condition that is reportedly beyond the tolerance limits set by Airbus. The jets cannot be returned to service until a full analysis has been completed, impact on airworthiness has been established and a solution has been found to repair the damage.
Coating Problem Investigation
Originally, it was speculated that the desert heat in Qatar caused the degrading paint surface, however, since then, 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 date back to 2016.
While Airbus and the airlines describe the issue as “cosmetic” and not a matter of safety, witnesses also reported 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.
Airbus noted to Reuters that it was aware of the surface issues that in some cases had made visible a sub-layer of mesh designed to absorb lightning, which it was 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 additional 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.”
At the time, Qatar Airways had 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.
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 noted 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 at the time.
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.
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, in January, 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.
Later that month, Airbus confirmed that it had canceled the $6 billion contract with Qatar for 50 of its new A321 passenger jets. The deal was reportedly worth $6.35 billion when it was finalized in December 2017.
Qatar also announced that it had sought an expedited hearing for the legal proceedings against Airbus in the High Court of England regarding the surface degradation on the Airbus 350 fleets. The airline provided video of the reported defects, welcoming the court to order a hearing in April to come to a resolution in the dispute.
“There is no reasonable or rational basis” for Qatari regulators to have grounded the A350s operated by Qatar Airways, Airbus said in documents prepared for a London court hearing on in February.
“These defects are not superficial and one of the defects causes the aircraft’s lightning protection system to be exposed and damaged,” Qatar responded in a statement. “We continue to urge Airbus to undertake a satisfactory root cause analysis into the cause of the defects.”
Shortly after the contract was canceled, on Jan. 31, Qatar announced that it had ordered up to 50 large cargo planes and committed to buying up to 50 Boeing 737 Max jets at a deal worth $34 billion.