Comment: Airbus vs Qatar (saga about A350)


Let’s start from the beginning. Qatar Airways has ordered Airbus A350 aircraft in two versions -900 and -1000. The airline is also the launch customer for the A350, where we had the opportunity to attend the delivery of the first A350-1000 in Toulouse. Qatar’s Airbus A350 is one of the main wide-body aircraft, of course, along with other wide-body aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and 787, and the Airbus A330 and A380. With the A350 they launched their great product called Qsuite, where business class travelers can enjoy the privacy of their little suite. We must admit that Qatar Airways is one of the drivers of change in air travel, of course for the better. They managed to make Doha, their hub, a city that everyone knows, a place where flights from all over the world meet. A place where a traveler from Europe will travel to Asia or a traveler from the United States to India. In short, Qatar Airways connects the world through Doha. Of course, we have to mention that this business model benefits from Qatar’s proximity to Dubai and their competitor Emirates. But the competition certainly comes in handy, because that’s where the travelers benefit. They compete with Emirates, Etihad, and other airlines from that part of the world, in fact with airlines from all over the world to a greater or lesser extent on long-haul flights. The A350 plays a very important role in this whole story. Qatar sends its A350 aircraft from very short flights in the vicinity of Doha, all the way to the most distant ones, which take 16 hours to fly.

This soap opera about the A350 started some time ago. In short, Qatar first publicly criticized Airbus for degrading paint on aircraft. Then Airbus responded in style, “we are familiar with it, we investigate what happened, but it is only cosmetic, and does not affect the safety of the aircraft”. The Qatar Civil Aviation Agency has grounded several Airbus A350 aircraft due to these paint problems. That’s how it all started. The European Civil Aviation Agency did not ground the A350 because of this, nor any other Agency in the world, except the Qatari agency that has done so. Although there are complaints from other A350 operators that there is a color problem, no one has officially grounded A350 aircraft. Many airlines have the A350 in their fleet, such as Finnair, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, Delta, etc. Qatar has decided to sue Airbus in a London court and seek damages. According to some information, they are asking for more than 600 million USD, plus compensation for each additional day. Qatar Airways, meanwhile, commented that it lacked capacity due to grounded aircraft and was forced to lease aircraft from other airlines and activate its aircraft that had been removed from the fleet, such as the Airbus A380.

According to the ch-aviation database, in the Qatar Airways fleet, there are 34 Airbus A350-900 aircraft with an average age of 4.7 years and 19 Airbus A350-1000 aircraft with an average age of 2.4 years. Oot of these, 21 aircraft are inactive (16x A350-900 and 5x A350-1000).

According to media reports, Airbus has decided to cancel Qatar’s order of 50 Airbus A321neo aircraft in the classic and Long Range versions. With this move, Airbus showed that they do not want to cooperate with Qatar any more. However, they will have to deliver about twenty new A350 aircraft, because that order has not been canceled so far. With this move, Qatar Airways was put in an awkward situation, because they have Airbus A320 and A321 in their fleet of narrow-body aircraft, which they wanted to replace with A321neo in the coming years. Their Airbus A320 aircraft are not very old and do not require immediate replacement, but Qatar needs to have new narrow-body aircraft to reduce costs, to increase capacity, to launch flights to new destinations, and to replace wide-body aircraft with narrow-body aircraft. Certain routes that have a smaller number of passengers or where, due to the strategy, it is more important for them to have more flights per day instead of one flight with a wide-body aircraft. It is also Qatar’s strategy as far as the fleet is concerned to have the newest aircraft in the fleet.

According to the ch-aviation database, Qatar Airways has 29 Airbus A320 aircraft with an average age of 9.5 years and 3 Airbus A321 aircraft with an average age of 11.5 years.

If the story of canceling the order for 50 A321neo aircraft becomes official, and if Airbus no longer wants to cooperate with Qatar on this issue, then Qatar will have to find an alternative. Although it is a confirmed cancellation, you never know what can change in a couple of hours or a couple of days. Of course, the alternative is always to go to Airbus’ competitor, Boeing. But here too, the story becomes interesting, because Qatar already had Boeing 737 MAX aircraft ordered, even though they were intended for Air Italy, which in the meantime failed. Because of that, the order became unnecessary for them and was canceled. The question is what Boeing’s strategy will be now, whether sales representatives are already on their way to Doha or is Boeing waiting for Qatar’s next moves. Boeing has recently been losing important customers to its 737 MAX aircraft, such as Qantas or KLM, and they need new big customers. Of course, switching the fleet of narrow-body aircraft from Airbus to Boeing aircraft is not easy. The transformation from A320ceo to A321neo is painless and does not require much adjustment of the whole company around it. But the transformation from Airbus to Boeing fleet is much more demanding. From having to train pilots to a new type of aircraft, to have all the maintenance learn how to maintain it. It all requires certain finances because such a transition does not happen overnight, it is a project that lasts for several years. But there is also the question about the 737 MAX, whether Qatar Airways wants them at all, whether they fit into their strategy, whether they suit them with their characteristics. The Boeing 737 MAX 10 has a similar capacity as the A321neo, but its range is lower. Qatar also had Long Range versions of the A321neo ordered, and the 737 MAX can’t compete there.

It is important to mention that before Qatar Airways was a buyer for A320neo aircraft, they were supposed to be a launch customer, but all this was canceled due to problems in the very beginning of the A320neo series. We can see today how these were beginner’s problems, and now Airbus can’t produce enough A320neo series aircraft to satisfy market appetites. This means that the aircraft was well received by the market. If there were still big problems, no one would buy them. However, Qatar Airways later decided to buy 50 A321neo aircraft again.

Airbus is in a great position regarding the cancellation of Qatar’s order of 50 Airbus A321neo aircraft, as many airlines would pay in gold to get those aircraft as soon as possible. Those 50 A321neo will be sold within a few hours, maybe airlines are already sending bids for those planes. We can say that these 50 aircraft are just a drop in the ocean from the multitude ordered, so the cancellation will not mean much to Airbus, while on the other hand, Qatar Airways is the one that will have challenges in resolving this issue.

Qatar’s director is known for his public appearances, criticism, non-acceptance of aircraft deliveries, sudden changes in decisions. For some things we can say that he was right, but the question is whether every decision must be commented so publicly. Due to the many changes in opinions, orders, deliveries, everyone may wonder what is hiding behind this story around the A350. The problem with the A350 and color problems is not diminished now, there are also problems with photos that can be found on the Internet, that don’t look very nice. The question is whether Qatar Airways has any other motives. For example, could it be capturing a better position for future orders, using that color story, and trying to get compensation for aircraft, some of which would be parked anyway due to the current coronavirus situation. Maybe it is to get a better deal from Boeing? Airbus has started designing a new type of A350F cargo aircraft, perhaps Qatar wants to reverse the order and take over cargo versions instead of passenger aircraft. None of this can be claimed to be true, but it can be considered as a possibility.
Maybe Airbus isn’t exactly innocent in this whole story, maybe they also had flaws and diminished the whole color story of the A350. For now, we can only speculate, wait and follow the developments as they happen. Surely, knowing the director of Qatar Airways, that story will not just go away.

This year, the World Cup is being held in Qatar. Considering the huge number fans, it will be necessary to have as many planes as possible to cover the demand. That is why Qatar Airways must provide as much capacity as possible, and carry as many passengers as possible and so that they don’t turn over to other carriers. They need those 21 Airbus A350s more than ever.