The planemaker Airbus has become embroiled in an extraordinary row with Qatar Airways, one of its key customers, over the state of paintwork on its A350 long-haul aircraft, just as the aerospace industry looks to emerged from the chaos caused by the Covid-19 crisis
The Gulf state airline has grounded some aircraft and halted new deliveries in the disagreement with the Toulousebased company.
The row is a blow for Airbus’s supply chain in Britain, where it employs 6,000 people making wings for the aircraft and where Rolls-Royce Derby is the supplier of Trent XWB engines
Qatar is the second largest operator of the A350, behind Singapore Airlines, accounting for 53, or 12 per cent, of the jets in service. It has 23 on order. Qatar’s A350s account for nearly a quarter of its 235-strong fleet.
After warning of “industrial repercussions” last week concerning a dispute with Airbus, Qatar yesterday said that it “continues to experience and has witnessed a condition in which the surface below the paint on some of its Airbus A350 aircraft has been degrading at an accelerated rate”.
It said that it had grounded some its fleet “until the condition and root cause can be understood and corrected”, and added: “Qatar Airways will require this condition and its underlying root cause to be fully understood and corrected before the delivery of any further Airbus A350 aircraft.”
Airbus declined to comment, citing customer confidentiality.
The wide-body, twin-aisled A350 is a direct competitor to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has had issues of its own with electronics and the Trent 1000 engines supplied by Rolls-Royce
Airbus recently published a bullish update on how quickly its production would recover over the next couple of years. Although that mainly concerned its A320 short-haul model, Airbus said that it expected production of the A350 to increase to six a month over the next eighteen months, having been halved from a rate of ten a month before the pandemic.
Qatar Airways’ chief executive is Akbar Al Baker, who in the past has held Airbus and Boeing, his main sup pliers, publicly to account. According to analysis of the quarrel by Reuters, one side of the argument is that as a premium airline with expensive fares, Al Baker hammers home his exacting standards. Others believe that he picks fights to gain better terms for his delivery schedules from the aircraft manufacturers. The aircraft have a list price of about $320 million each, although big customers such as Qatar are known to be able to achieve large discounts.
The disagreement also can be seen in the context of next year’s football World Cup in the Gulf state, in which Qatar Airways will be the main carrier of teams and their supporters.
Qatar is the second largest of the three big Persian Gulf carriers whose home airports act — in normal times — as hubs for air traffic flows between east and west. It is smaller than Emirates, of Dubai, but carries more passengers than Etihad, of Abu Dhabi. It is also a 25 per cent shareholder in International Consolidated Airlines Group, the owner of British Airways.
The news is a setback for Airbus, which has delivered 425 A350s since the airliner first went into service — late — in 2015. It has orders for a further 490 to fulfil. Other significant customers for the aircraft include Cathay Pacific, of Hong Kong, and Lufthansa, of Germany