DBefore the High Court in London clashed on Tuesday Airbus and one of its largest customers, the Gulf airline, Qatar Airways, based in Doha. The dispute related to the refusal by the European aircraft manufacturer to deliver from next year an order for 50 Airbus A321neo (nearly five billion dollars). For this, Airbus relied on a so-called “cross” clause in sales contracts which authorizes cancellation when a previous contract has not been completed. In this case, the Doha company had grounded or refused to take delivery of 23 Airbus A350s whose exterior paint showed a defect. British justice agreed with Airbus.
British justice has ruled, giving reason to Airbus. It rejected Qatar Airways’ request to prohibit Airbus from reselling the 50 A321s it had ordered to other customers. The High Court had already asked Airbus to suspend the cancellation of the contract. An A321 to be delivered in February 2023 is already in production with subcontractors, before entering the final assembly line in Toulouse or Hamburg. Demand is so strong (more than 1,500 medium-haul A320s) that other customers are ready to take over from the Gulf company.
This particularly annoys the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, who sees himself deprived with this aircraft of an important component of growth. We remember that last autumn the “open skies” agreement was adopted between the European Union and Qatar. Qatar Airways can now fly to any European city, on any frequency with any capacity.
However, the A321neo – with 180 to 220 seats, up to ten flight hours or 8,700 kilometers at the very attractive cost of a jumbo seat-kilometre – is the ideal aircraft to link the Doha hub to the medium-sized European cities such as Bordeaux, Nantes, Venice, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, etc. Major cities – London, Paris, Frankfurt, etc. – are served from Qatar by wide-body aircraft (A380, A350, B787, B777) with 300 seats.
Besides Europe, the A321 can be operated to all of Africa, India, part of Asia. And the XLR version (for extra long range) also chosen by Qatar Airways will be able to cover 8,700 kilometers, a market segment on which Boeing has nothing to oppose. Failing that, Qatar Airways ordered B737-10 (ex-MAX) in December, but this version is slow to be developed and its performance is not at the level of that announced by the A321.
Another legal tussle will follow. It concerns Qatar Airways’ refusal to accept delivery of A350 long-haul aircraft with a paint defect. Airbus recognizes this quality problem, unacceptable on a 150 million dollar aircraft, but affirms with the European Aviation Safety Agency that this does not pose a problem in flight. In particular, the film of copper wires which provides electrical conductivity, absent from the start on a composite fuselage, is not affected. If this were not the case, the aircraft would not be protected against lightning.
Several American, European and Asian operators have noticed the same aesthetic defect and are flying the “blistered” A350s while waiting for a slot to become available in a painting hall. Qatar Airways, which refuses technical mediation, is seeking compensation in court that exceeds one billion dollars.
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You have to be aware that in this dangerous game the boss of Qatar Airways Al Baker is playing big. If justice proves him wrong, he will have to find a successor. The one who is nicknamed “my little dictator” in the entourage of the royal family in Doha could just end the year, but his position seems to have to be questioned beyond the World Cup (November 21-December 18).