Qatar vs Airbus
Updated: Aug 12
In this article, I talk about a fierce battle between two heavyweights in the aviation industry, Qatar and Airbus.
Over the past year, two heavyweights in the aviation industry, Qatar Airways and Airbus have been battling each other over an issue with the A350s. Two former friends have now turned enemies in a battle that has escalated to the legal stage. It has led to Airbus cancelling orders and Qatar waging a social media war on the manufacturer. Qatar and Airbus have always shared a special relationship with the airline taking the first delivery of the flagship models, the A350-900 and 1000. This fight can be divided into two separate parts, the factual evidence and what this means for the relationship between the two giants. Let us start with the facts.
In 2015, Qatar Airways was the launch customer of the A350-900, and a year later the A350-1000. Like other airlines, this aircraft was a massive step in the aviation industry in terms of fuel efficiency. It proves to be very successful and cost efficient in long to medium haul flights. Middle Eastern and Asian based airlines typically used these for their flights to western Europe and the Americas. However, one year into operation, Qatar Airways started to complain about the finish of the pains. Five other airlines also shared this problem. Airbus looked at it and decided it was a cosmetic issue. Since the airplanes were still new, Airbus worked with the companies under their warranty clause to solve this since a repaint is all that was needed. For a few years, this cycle repeated a few more types but was no big issue.
Fast forward five years, in 2021, this situation escalated. A Qatar Airways aircraft was sent to Shannon to strip off paint and rebrand it to the FIFA 2022 world cup livery. When they stripped the paint off, they discovered something concerning. The damage was more than superficial, it extended to the underneath metal mesh that was connected to the carbon fiber structure. This was no longer just about looks, it could have been a serious safety concern. Airbus decided to investigate this with the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency), the governing authority of Airbus, and other aviation authorities to which the aircraft was connected with. Every one of these agencies came to the same conclusion, that the alleged damage had nothing to do with safety. However, the Qatar Aviation Authority was of a different opinion and wanted to do a thorough investigation.
In this process, the grounded almost half their A350 fleet, 23 out of 50 aircrafts till Airbus came up with a concrete solution. To understand the situation further, we need to look at specific details of the construction of the A350. It Is the first aircraft to be built largely out of carbon fiber and carbon composites. This is stronger than aluminum and lighter, saving loads of weight, increasing efficiency and reducing fuel costs. As common-sense dictates, Aluminum and carbon composites react to paint in different ways. Metal expands and contracts with differences in temperature whereas carbon composites don’t. However, the paint on these composites behaves like metals. This is why it is harder for the paints to stick to the body of the aircraft and a coat of a special primer is required. Additionally, carbon composites have a much lesser capacity for electrical conductivity than aluminum. If a traditional aircraft made of aluminum is struck by lightning, it conducts the energy through the surface and dissipate it through the wings or tail. The passengers don’t notice anything and the damage is nothing but a few small holes. There may be some problems with minor systems but it does not pose a safety risk at all. However, if this happens with carbon composites, the high resistance to conductance will build up a significant amount of heat, resulting in severe damage to the structure. This is solved by putting a thin metal mesh over carbon composites, designed to behave like the aluminum. Its job is to receive lightning and conduct it throughout the aircraft. The Qataris claimed that the mesh surface was lifting off the chassis. Other authorities said that there was enough redundancy in the mesh system to continue to serve properly even if some of the paint had chipped off. As a result, Airbus unveiled plans to make reforms to the mesh system, to ensure it sticks better to the carbon fiber body.
In December, Qatar brought Airbus to court in London and sued them for $600 million for damages caused to the A350’s and the lost revenue as a result of the planes being grounded. This harsh course of action stems from the leadership of Qatar Airways and their way of operation. The CEO, Akbar al Bakir took the helm of the airline in 1997, and under his guidance, the company has evolved into one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. They have done so because of the attention to detail and obsession with perfection. Sometimes, this has led to friction with suppliers. Qatar Airways has retuned orders that have the slightest problems like one seat cover torn or dirt on the carpet. Understandably, they demand flawlessness for the $300 million they pay per aircraft. Airbus, being a premium manufacturer, has to learn to deal with these complaints and Qatar is not the first airline to do so. However, the line is drawn when they are accused of endangering people despite what most authorities have reported. Airbus claims that the grounding of the aircrafts happened at a pretty convenient time, at the height of the pandemic. They say that this lawsuit is a cheeky way for to get Airbus to pay for the losses Qatar Airways suffered during Covid-19.
A few months later, Qatar provoked Airbus even further by releasing a 97-second-long video on twitter of various aircraft with chipped paint. In response to this, Airbus cancelled 50 A321Neo orders meant for 2023. This could have potentially crippled the airline who had a serious expansion planned. Qatar did not take this lying down, and in within a week in what was probably the fastest aviation deal in history, Qatar secured an order with Boeing for the new 737 variant. When the Emir was visiting USA, he announced that Qatar Airways will buy 50 aircrafts from Boeing. The initial deal would be of 25 aircraft, with an option for 25 more, completely replacing the 50 A350s.
In February, Qatar further cancelled 2 more A350s that had already been manufactured since Qatar Airways failed to pick them up from Toulouse. There are still many aircraft left in Qatar’s original order with Airbus, but in the near future, they too are likely to be cancelled.
Boeing, a few months, had a similar paint problem as the A350. However, they were quick to clarify that even though the 787 is made of similar carbon composite fibers, this problem is unrelated. In Boeings case, the paint is chipping off the upper side of the wings as a result of increased UV radiation. They plan to fix this problem by applying a UV resistant layer.
In conclusion, At some point, Airbus and Qatar Airways will have to deescalate. Their fight serves no purpose. Airbus needs one of its most loyal customers in the long term, and Qatar Airways needs the A321s’ for their expansion into short haul routes. Mixing up their fleet by adding Boeing aircrafts will only prove to be expensive since it comes with high training costs.