Expensive Airbus paint flaw goes wider than the Golf

DUBAI, Nov. 29 (Reuters) – A dispute between Airbus (AIR.PA) and Qatar Airways over paint and surface flaws on A350 jets extends beyond the Gulf, with at least five other airlines raising concerns since the high-tech model enlisted, according to documents viewed by Reuters and several people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Qatar’s flag carrier has grounded 20 of its 53 A350s and says it is acting on orders from the local regulator 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 the other airlines, which have not grounded any planes and describe the problem as “cosmetic”.

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The aircraft maker said in response to questions from Reuters that there were some problems with “early surface wear” that in some cases had exposed a mesh underlay designed to absorb lightning, which it is trying to repair.

Three people with direct knowledge of the situation said Qatar Airways and at least one other airline had in some cases developed holes in the mesh itself, exposing the carbon fiber fuselage to possible weather or other damage.

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

Asked about holes in the mesh, it said some airlines were subject to higher temperature swings than others, apparently referring to, say, the desert conditions in Qatar.

Qatar Airways has called for the identification of a definitive cause and a permanent solution that complies with the regulator. The Qatar Civil Aviation Authority declined to comment.

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

Airbus says it has identified a root cause, but sources at two affected airlines said they had not been notified.

The spat has set the clock on a compensation battle that sources say 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 in a special livery for the FIFA World Cup to be held in the Gulf state next year.

But what has been widely presented for months as an isolated problem related to Qatar’s extreme heat is more widespread, according to a private maintenance message board used by Airbus and A350 operators and reviewed by Reuters.

Reports show that Finnair (FIA1S.HE), which operates in the colder north, raised concerns about the paint as early as 2016 and reported in October 2019 that damage had spread downward to the anti-lightning net.

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

In response to those previously undisclosed issues, Airbus set up a “multi-function task force” last year while studying new material for lightning protection in future A350 jets, two people familiar with the matter said.

Finnair, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa have confirmed that some of their A350s have suffered cosmetic damage. Air Caraibes said it and sister airline French Bee had seen “no major paint problems”, especially none related to safety. Air France said its own A350s had been operating normally since it started operating 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. CEO Akbar Al Baker has regularly criticized both Airbus and US rival Boeing (BA.N) for alleged manufacturing and strategy flaws.

Analysts say the dispute coincides with efforts by many airlines to reduce their exposure to long-haul aircraft after the pandemic. Gulf industry sources deny commercial motives for grounding, noting Qatar urgently needs jets for the World Cup.

Airbus is not the only one with problems. Boeing has had paint problems and a phenomenon known as rivet rash, or paint spots, on its competing 787s. A spokesperson said it was not safety related and is being resolved.

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

‘UNHAPPY’

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 a very bad condition.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, which uses a different paint supplier, reported similar problems the same month. Nearly a year later, it said it was “still having problems with paint peeling off on multiple planes.”

In one message, it was announced that problems had been found on an A350 just two weeks after delivery.

“We can confirm that we have encountered some issues painting the A350 and that we have worked with … Airbus to resolve these issues,” said a Finnair spokesperson, adding that the issue is “cosmetic, but natural.” pity” was.

Cathay Pacific confirmed that some of its A350s had experienced “to some extent cosmetic decline”. The issue has been fully investigated and there are no safety implications, it said.

Reports show that Lufthansa also found shells in October 2017, some of which covered more than a square meter.

Lufthansa said occasional cosmetic defects were fixed and safety was never compromised.

MAKE PAINT STICK

Paint has played an important branding and diplomatic role in the jet era, projecting the image of airlines and countries around the world. But a switch to new lightweight jets brought a hitch.

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 harder to cover in a way that causes the paint to stick.

The new jets also require a layer of metal mesh to ward off lightning strikes, as carbon fiber is non-conductive.

Finally, unlike metal, carbon does not expand or contract as temperature changes. Still, paint does, resulting in a tug-of-war between plane and paint that can peel off over time.

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

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

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

Photos submitted to the bulletin board by Finnair in 2019 and seen by Reuters appear to show corroded or missing mesh known as Expanded Copper Foil. Finnair and Airbus declined to comment on the photos, but Airbus officials said the specific problem may have stemmed from an early production problem, which has since been resolved.

“We have seen no effect on the structure of the aircraft and operators continue to fly with a high degree of operational reliability,” said A350 Chief Engineer Miguel Angel Llorca Sanz of the broader paint issue.

“This doesn’t affect lightning protection at all because of the substantial (safety) margins… It’s not an airworthiness issue at all,” he said in an interview.

Airbus is nonetheless looking at updating its lightning system to a more flexible material called Perforated Copper Foil, industry sources said.

Airbus has confirmed it is an option under review.

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

Photos 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 that kind of damage is within the allowable margins for dealing with lightning, which Airbus says would still wash over the jet safely. That, in turn, can determine whether compensation clauses are triggered.

While European regulators have said there is no evidence of security risks, Qatar is pushing for deeper analysis and showing no immediate signs of withdrawal.

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Reporting by Tim Hepher, Alexander Cornwell Additional reporting by Jamie Freed and Ilona Wissenbach Editing by Mark Potter

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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