Judge Denies Qatar Request in Airbus Dispute
In the ongoing legal saga between Qatar Airways and Airbus over paint defects and contracts, a British judge recently denied Qatar’s request to reinstate a jet contract canceled by the planemaker at the beginning of the year.
According to reports, the judge rejected Qatar’s claim that it could not find alternatives for the jets, including leasing or deploying 737 MAX jets that it has ordered from Boeing. The ruling means that Airbus can now market its A321neos to other airlines or remove them from industrial plans to ease factory congestion.
Airbus told reporters that it was pleased with the “court’s decision in recognizing Airbus’s position that a transparent and trustful cooperation is essential in our industry.”
It added: “The litigation is about the misrepresentation on the safety and airworthiness of the A350, which we will continue to defend, as well as the reputation of its operators and the rules governing aviation safety in the face of unjustified claims.”
Qatar Airways declined to comment, but Reuters reports that a person familiar with the carrier said the A321neo row was secondary to its safety concerns over A350 damage, which it blames on a design defect.
Additionally, according to reports, airline Lufthansa is in talks with Airbus to take delivery slots of A350s originally scheduled for Qatar. The three jets have been sitting due to Qatar’s refuse to accept the planes due to surface degradation.
The court is expected to set out a schedule to lead the case regarding the A350 paint defects to trial, with Airbus adding it would monitor the court’s decisions for the timetable.
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.
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.
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.”
“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, 2021, 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.
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.
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.
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. Qatar also 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.
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.”
In March, the owner of British Airways, International Airlines Group, reported that it was experiencing surface degradation on its Airbus A350 jets, similar to paint defects Qatar Airways found on its aircraft. IAG Chief Executive Luis Gallego said that the issues do not impact the airworthiness of the aircraft.
“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.”
And last month, in court documents obtained by Bloomberg, Qatar has stated that paint layers on large parts of affected A350s have been so badly damaged that wind and pollutants, such as salt or hydraulic fluids, can penetrate through the skin and damage the lightning protection of the aircraft. An area of concern includes the wings, where the fuel tanks are located.
Qatar Airways Chief Technical Officer Ali Al Hilli, who has reportedly inspected all of the airline’s grounded A350s, said the current design and manufacture of the A350 “is defective.”
According to the court document, seen damage includes spider cracks, severe cracking on and around window frames, exposure of the lightning protection and of the underlying composite surface and damage to the lighting protection layer. Pictures were provided in the statement as proof of the damage.
In the filing, the air carrier cited a European Union Aviation Safety Agency safety assessment from April last year, which notes that the lightning threat would pose a danger if it were co-incident with fuel tanks. Since then, Qatar has reported that damage can be seen on the wings, indicating co-incident with the fuel tanks.
However, while the local aviation safety regulator backs Qatar, the EASA says the plane is airworthy. Airbus also “rejects Qatar Airways’ ongoing and public mischaracterization of the nature of these issues and of their impact on the A350 aircraft’s continuous airworthiness,” a spokesman told reporters, adding they continue to work with EASA.