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Airbus’ costly paint defect goes beyond the Gulf

DUBAI, Nov.29 (Reuters) – A dispute between Airbus (AIR.PA) and Qatar Airways over paint and surface defects on A350 planes extends beyond the Gulf, with at least five other airlines reporting of their concerns since the entry into service of the high-tech model, according to documents seen by Reuters and several people with direct knowledge of the case.

Qatar’s national carrier grounded 20 of its 53 A350s, claiming it was acting on orders from its local dispatcher, until the reasons for what witnesses describe as the blistered and pockmarked appearance of some of its A350s can be confirmed.

Airbus says there is no risk to the safety of the A350 – a point echoed by other airlines, which have not immobilized any jets and describe the problem as “cosmetic”.

The planner said in response to questions from Reuters that there had been problems with “early surface wear” which, in some cases, had made visible a mesh underlay designed to absorb lightning strikes, which he said. strives to correct.

Three people with first-hand knowledge of the situation said that at Qatar Airways and at least one other airline, the mesh itself had, in some cases, developed gaps, leaving the carbon fiber fuselage exposed to possible damage. weather or other damage.

The A350, in service since 2015, is designed with sufficient protection to withstand storms and is deployed around the world with high reliability, Airbus said in an emailed statement.

Asked about the gaps in the mesh, he said some airlines were subject to greater temperature swings than others, apparently referring to, for example, desert conditions in Qatar.

Qatar Airways has requested that a definitive cause be identified and a permanent solution that satisfies its regulator. The Qatar Civil Aviation Authority declined to comment.

Two people familiar with the grounding decision said it was based on lingering uncertainty about the cause and impact of surface degradation and gaps in lightning protection.

Airbus says it has found a root cause, but sources from two affected airlines said they had not been made aware of it.

The dispute has been the time for a compensation battle that sources say could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars after Qatar Airways halted deliveries of 23 additional 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 dismantled and repainted in a special livery for the upcoming FIFA World Cup. in the Gulf state next year.

But what for months had been widely touted as an isolated issue linked to Qatar’s intense heat is more prevalent, according to a private maintenance bulletin board used by Airbus and A350 operators and reviewed by Reuters.

Messages show that Finnair (FIA1S.HE), which operates in the colder north, raised paint concerns as early as 2016 and reported in October 2019 that the damage had spread below the lightning mesh.

Cathay Pacific (0293.HK), Etihad, Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) and Air France (AIRF.PA) – acting in its capacity as maintenance provider for Air Caraïbes – also complained of paint damage.

As a result of these previously unreported issues, Airbus set up a “multifunctional working group” last year, while studying new materials for lightning protection in future A350 jets, two people close to it said. folder.

Finnair, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa have confirmed that some of their A350s suffered what they described as cosmetic damage. Air Caraibes said it and sister airline French Bee had seen “no major paint problems”, especially with regard to safety. Air France said its own A350s have been operating normally since it started flying them in 2021 and declined to comment on Air Caraïbes. Etihad declined to comment.

True, Qatar Airways has had disputes with suppliers in the past before reaching compromise agreements. Its CEO, Akbar Al Baker, has regularly criticized Airbus and its American rival Boeing (BA.N) for perceived manufacturing and strategy errors.

Analysts say the dispute coincides with efforts by many airlines to reduce their exposure to long-haul jets in the wake of the pandemic. Gulf industry sources deny the commercial motives for the grounding, noting that Qatar is in dire need of World Cup planes.

Airbus is not alone in facing problems either. Boeing has had paint issues and a phenomenon called rivet blowout, or missing paint stains, on its 787 competitors. A spokesperson said it was unrelated to security and was being resolved.

However, Qatar’s unusual partial stranding comes at a sensitive time for Airbus as it strives to meet a year-end delivery target and Qatar Airways considers Boeing’s offers to replace a fleet of 34 freighters. Read more

‘UNFORTUNATE’

In October 2016, a year after becoming the first European operator of the A350, Finnair reported paint damage, according to the bulletin board. He later complained that “the paint is in very bad condition”.

Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong, which uses another paint supplier, reported similar issues the same month. Almost a year later, he said he “continued to experience paint chipping problems on several planes.”

In a post, he revealed that problems were found on an A350 just two weeks after delivery.

“We can confirm that we have encountered problems with the paintwork of the A350 and have worked with (…) Airbus to resolve these issues,” a Finnair spokesperson said, adding that the problem was “aesthetic, but naturally unhappy “.

Cathay Pacific has confirmed that some of its A350s have suffered “cosmetic deterioration to some extent”. The issue has been thoroughly investigated and there is no impact on security, he said.

In October 2017, messages show that Lufthansa had also found areas of scaling, some extending over a square meter.

Lufthansa said occasional cosmetic flaws were corrected and safety was never affected.

MAKE STICK PAINTING

Painting has played a major role in branding and diplomacy in the age of jets, projecting the image of airlines and nations across the globe. But the switch to new lightweight jets came with a problem.

When Airbus launched the A350 15 years ago, it chose to follow Boeing’s new 787 by using carbon fiber instead of metal.

Experts say the lighter jets use less fuel, but are more difficult to fit in a way that the paint sticks.

New jets also need a layer of wire mesh to dissipate lightning because carbon fiber is not conductive.

Finally, unlike metal, carbon does not expand or shrink when temperatures change. Yet the paint does, resulting in an uphill struggle between the plane and the paint that can cause chipping over time.

The issues reported by Qatar Airways and some – though far from all – other A350 operators suggest this is happening sooner than expected, said two people familiar with the design.

The problem may have been compounded by the paint’s particularly poor adhesion to the titanium rivets, they added.

Some industry experts have questioned whether other manufacturing flaws may also have contributed to the problem.

Images submitted to the bulletin board by Finnair in 2019, seen by Reuters, appear to show a corroded or missing mesh known as expanded copper foil. Finnair and Airbus declined to comment on the photos, but Airbus officials said this particular issue may have stemmed from an early production issue, which has since been resolved.

“We have not seen any effect on the structure of the aircraft and the operators continue to fly with high levels of operational reliability,” said A350 chief engineer Miguel Angel LLorca Sanz of the larger problem of painting.

“This does not affect the lightning protection at all due to the substantial (safety) margins… It is not an airworthiness issue at all,” he said in an interview.

Airbus is nonetheless considering updating the lightning system to a more flexible material called perforated copper foil, industry sources said.

Airbus has confirmed that this is an option under consideration.

This still leaves a war of words over existing planes inactive with their windows taped in Qatar.

Photographs obtained by Reuters show cracked or missing paint and exposed or corroded lightning protection on at least two of the jets.

Now regulators must try to break a deadlock over whether this type of damage is within the allowable margins to deal with lightning, which Airbus says would still be safe on the jet. This in turn may determine whether indemnification clauses will be triggered.

While European regulators have said there is no evidence of a security risk, Qatar is pushing for further analysis and showing no immediate signs of backing down.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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