NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) — Qatar Airways says surface flaws on Airbus SE’s A350 jets cause a risk of the fuel tanks igniting, bolstering its contention that safety is at stake in its acrimonious legal dispute with the planemaker.

In documents made public Tuesday, Qatar Airways said paint layers on large parts of affected A350s have been so badly damaged that wind and pollutants, such as salt or hydraulic fluids, can penetrate through the skin and damage the lightning protection of the aircraft. That raises particular concern on the wings, where fuel tanks are located.

The argument will be fully aired in a London court next month, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for both sides. Qatar Airways sued Airbus late last year over A350 surface quality issues after months of disagreement over their gravity. Airbus acknowledges the problem but disputes the airline’s characterization of it as a safety concern. Both sides have made compensation claims. Qatar Airways has grounded 22 A350s to date, while Airbus canceled two deliveries of the wide-body and a separate contract for its best-selling A321s. Those orders are now caught up in separate legal proceedings.

Two Agencies

Qatar Airways has the backing of its local aviation safety regulator but the European Union Aviation Safety Agency has said the plane is airworthy. In its filing, the carrier cited an EASA safety assessment from April 2021, saying the lightning threat would pose a danger if it were co-incident with fuel tanks. Qatar Airways said that since damage can be seen on the wings, that means it is co-incident with the fuel tanks.

Airbus “rejects Qatar Airways’ ongoing and public mischaracterization of the nature of these issues and of their impact on the A350 aircraft’s continuous airworthiness,” a spokesman said. The planemaker has worked with EASA since the beginning and continues to do so, he said.

EASA didn’t respond to a request for comment made after regular business hours.

‘Defective’ Design
Qatar Airways Chief Technical Officer Ali Al Hilli said the current design and manufacture of the A350 “is defective” and that he has inspected all of the airline’s grounded A350s. The damage seen includes spider cracks, severe cracking on and around window frames, exposure of the lightning protection and of the underlying composite surface, and damage to the lightning protection layer. The airline provided pictures in the statement purporting to show the damage.

In another witness statement, Qatar Airways took on Airbus’s scrapping of the separate order for 50 A321s. The airline has sued over the cancellation and a judge is to rule on that dispute next week.

No other aircraft available in the market can match the economical, long-range aircraft’s ability to serve smaller markets such as Toulouse and Lyon in France, Bergen, Norway, or Bilbao, Spain, and the airline has now put those plans on hold.

Any delays on the A321, should the order be reinstated, would be down to Airbus’s own inability to keep up with demand, Qatar Airways said.

A350 Alternatives

Qatar Airways likewise rejected Airbus’s contention that the airline grounded the A350s for commercial reasons, because its business was hit by the coronavirus epidemic.

The carrier is now operating above pre-pandemic capacity, it said, and has had to turn to alternatives including wet leases -- a temporary arrangement where a lessor provides an aircraft along with the crew, maintenance, and insurance. It’s also had to bring Airbus A380 superjumbos back into service. These arrangements are costly and have led to complaints about service, the airline said.

Even with the legal battle continuing, the airline sought to refute Airbus’s claims that the relationship between the two companies has grown tense.

“Qatar Airways and Airbus have worked together for more than 20 years,” Krunoslav Krajacevic, a senior manager of production oversight and aircraft deliveries for Qatar Airways, said in a witness statement. “I am confident that the relationship will remain strong and continue despite these proceedings.”