by Alexander Cornwell and Tim Hepfer
DOHA (Reuters) – Two high-tech Airbus A350 jets sit idle with their windows taped and engines covered in a floodlight hangar in a bay beset by an international legal dispute between European industrial giant Airbus and Qatar’s national carrier.
From afar, the planes can look like any other long-haul jetliners crowded into the busy Doha hub. But a rare on-site visit by Reuters reporters showed what appeared to be evidence of damage to the wings, tail and rudder surface.
The two planes, worth a combined $300 million according to analysts, are among 23 grounded A350s at the center of a $1 billion London court battle over whether the damage represents a potential safety risk, something Airbus vehemently denies. .
The planes were grounded by Qatar’s regulator after premature paint erosion caused damage to a metal sublayer that protects the fuselage from lightning strikes.
Other airlines continue to fly the A350 even after the plane was declared safe by European regulators.
Rare direct access was granted to Reuters journalists after they requested travel on the sidelines of an airline industry meeting in Qatar’s capital Doha this week.
Sporadic surface imperfections on the A350s seen by Reuters included blisters along the roof or crown of the jet and a long stretch of cracked or missing paint.
In some areas, the protective power mesh that sits between the hull and the paint appears exposed and rough.
Other parts appeared to be missing, leaving areas of the aircraft’s overall hull exposed to the atmosphere.
Paint on the tail of one of the A350s with Qatar Airways’ maroon Arabian Oryx emblem was cracked and pockmarked by missing paint that exposed the underside.
Airbus and Qatar Airways had no immediate comment on Reuters’ findings.
Airbus acknowledges the quality flaws in the A350s, but denies that they pose any safety risks due to the backup system built into the design and the amount of tolerances.
Qatar Airways has argued that this may not be known until further analysis, and is refusing to take more planes.
Airbus has argued that some paint erosion is a feature of the carbon-composite technology used to build all modern long-range jets – a necessary trade-off for weight savings.
It says that the cracks are caused by the interaction of the paint method, an anti-lightening material called ECF, and the overall composition. Not all ECF foils are in the tail, prompting technical debate over whether the same problem causes damage.
Amid hundreds of pages of technical court filings submitted by both sides, Reuters has not been able to independently verify the cause of the damages.
Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker and Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faurie had the opportunity to meet during a three-day industry gathering in Qatar this week.
When asked whether relations have improved after the incident, which involved two men sitting next to each other over dinner, Al Baker suggested that the two sides stay away.
“On a personal level I’m friends with everyone, but when there’s a problem with my company, it’s a different story. If things were sorted out, we wouldn’t have waited for a trial next year.” news conference.
Fauri said this week he was in discussions with the airline and “reported progress in the sense that we are communicating”.
One of the most senior executives in the airline industry expressed concern after the Doha meeting that the dispute could have a toxic effect on contractual relationships across the industry.
“It would be a lot better to have friends rather than work in the courts,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, told reporters.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell and Tim Heffer; Editing by Mark Potter)