A dispute between Airbus and Qatar Airways over paint and surface flaws on A350 jets stretches beyond the Gulf, with at least five other airlines raising concerns since the high-tech model entered service, according to documents seen by Reuters and several people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Qatar’s national carrier has grounded 20 of its 53 A350s, saying it is acting on orders from its local regulator, until reasons for what witnesses describe as the blistered and pock-marked appearance of some of its A350s can be confirmed.
Airbus says there is no risk to the A350’s safety – a point echoed by the other airlines, which have not grounded any jets and describe the issue as “cosmetic.”
The plane maker said in response to queries from Reuters there had been some problems with “early surface wear” that in some cases had made visible a sub-layer of mesh designed to absorb lightning, which it is working to fix.
Three people with direct knowledge of the situation said that at Qatar Airways and at least one other airline, the mesh had in some instances itself developed gaps, leaving the carbon-fiber fuselage exposed to possible weather or other damage.
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.
Asked about gaps in the mesh, it said some airlines were subject to higher swings in temperatures than others, apparently referring, for example, to desert conditions in Qatar.
Qatar Airways has called for a definitive cause to be identified and a permanent fix that satisfies its regulator. The Qatar Civil Aviation Authority declined to comment.
Two people familiar with the grounding decision said it was based on ongoing uncertainty over the cause and impact of surface degradation and gaps in lightning protection. While European regulators have said there is no evidence of safety risk, Qatar is pressing for deeper analysis and shows no immediate signs of backing down.
Airbus says it has found a root cause, but sources with two affected airlines said they had not been notified of one.
The row has set the clock ticking on a compensation battle that sources said could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars after Qatar Airways halted deliveries of 23 more A350s on order.
The clash between two of aviation’s most powerful players became public in May, six months after Qatar Airways sent an A350 to be stripped and repainted especially for the FIFA World Cup to be held in the Gulf state next year.
But, what for months had been widely presented as an isolated issue related to Qatar’s severe heat, is more widespread, according to a private maintenance message board used by Airbus and A350 operators and reviewed by Reuters.
Messages show Finnair, which operates in the colder north, raised paint concerns as early as 2016, and reported in October 2019 that damage had spread below to the anti-lightning mesh.
Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Lufthansa and Air France – acting in its capacity as maintenance provider for Air Caraibes – also complained of paint damage.
Finnair, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa confirmed some of their A350s had suffered what they described as cosmetic damage. Air Caraibes said it and sister airline French Bee had seen “no major paint problems,” and especially none regarding safety. Air France said its own A350s had operated normally since it began flying them in 2021 and declined to comment on Air Caraibes. Etihad declined to comment.
To be sure, Qatar Airways has had disputes with suppliers in the past before reaching compromise deals. Its CEO Akbar Al Baker has periodically criticized both Airbus and U.S. rival Boeing over perceived manufacturing and strategy errors.
Analysts say the dispute coincides with efforts by many airlines to reduce their exposure to long-haul jets following the pandemic. Gulf industry sources deny commercial motives for the grounding, noting Qatar badly needs jets for the World Cup.