Qatar Airways has had a lengthy dispute with Airbus over paint quality problems that it says led to deterioration in composite areas of its Airbus A350 aircraft. The airline has grounded 20 of the planes and put half of its retired fleet of A380s back into the sky to fill the gaps. Now, a recent report reveals that it’s not just Qatar having problems.
Last year, Qatar Airways sent an Airbus A350-900, registration A7-ALL, to Ireland be stripped of its paint so it could be repainted in a 2022 FIFA World Cup livery. But something was off. As Aviation24.be reports, the four-year-old plane was discovered to have surface problems. Initial reports said that the aircraft’s composite components had cracks in areas of aerodynamic stress. An inspection by Airbus gave good news and the damage wasn’t as bad as initially suggested:
“Whilst undergoing a repaint at Shannon, Qatar Airways’ Airbus A350-900 aircraft was observed to have some irregularities on the surface coating. The issue is superficial/cosmetic and only visible when the top coat of paint is stripped. It is not a structural composite issue! In agreement with Qatar Airways the aircraft will be flown to Toulouse for further inspection -as a precaution- and re-painting. There is no safety concern.“
The A350 is Airbus’ answer to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The A350's materials are 53 percent composite, covering much of the fuselage, wings and tail. Composites have a number of advantages. An obvious one is low weight and high strength, but composites also don’t corrode like metal or experience metal fatigue.
The Qatar Civil Aviation Authority grounded 20 of Qatar’s 53 A350s. To fill in the gaps left by those planes, Qatar brought five Airbus A380s back from their early retirement. The airline was initially the only one to note issues, leading some to believe the damage had something to do with desert heat. But a recent report from Reuters indicates that Qatar isn’t alone.
According to messages from a private aircraft maintenance message board, Finnair noted paint problems back in 2016. Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Lufthansa, Air Caraibes and Delta Air Lines all had paint issues. Cathay Pacific noted problems beginning just two weeks after taking delivery of an A350.
Composites do bring some challenges. One of them is that they aren’t the best at conducting electricity. Normally, when a metal aircraft is struck by lightning, the current flows throughout the skin before exiting without harm. Airbus combats that with a metallic mesh embedded in the carbon fiber designed for lightning conduction. In the case of both Qatar Airways and Finnair, the paint damage led to this mesh becoming exposed and itself damaged.
The clashing between Airbus and Qatar Airways is ongoing, reports Bloomberg. The carrier states that while it wants to order 50 freighters and it has 23 more passenger A350s on order, it will not take delivery of more A350s until the paint problem is fixed.
As noted by Reuters, Airbus says it knows the root cause of the issue, but sources with two of the airlines said that they have not been notified of it. Airbus says that the damage to the anti-lightning mesh on these aircraft does not impact the lightning strike protection due to safety margins. Still, it is looking to upgrade the mesh to a better material anyway.
Because a root cause has not been identified, Qatar is calling for a deeper investigation. It is also demanding compensation from Airbus. Thankfully, while the issue sounds scary, the other airlines, Airbus and European regulators say that there is no evidence of a safety risk.