This story is about one of two major manufacturers and a global and growing airline. The manufacturer wants to sell aircraft, the airline wants to buy and use them to extend its network. There should be little that could go wrong with this, but gone all wrong it has and on full display for the whole world to see. This story has been covered by numerous news outlets, including probably all that cover the aviation industry. Still, it may be worth reiterating the story and add some reflections to this, as it is still ongoing and may still escalate further.
In an unexpected move, Airbus recently cancelled an aircraft order for 50 A321s from Qatar worth 6 billion USD (link). While airlines regularly delays, changes or cancels order, the cancellation of an order by a manufacturer is a very rare move. An Airbus statement simply concluded: “We confirm we did terminate the contract for 50 A321s with Qatar Airways in accordance with our rights”.
The Airbus action was in response to Qatar repeatedly and increasingly loudly voicing their complaints about flagging surface paint on their A350 aircraft. Recently the airline circulated pictures of the damage and expressed concerns about lightning protection systems, underlying composite structures being expose and showing signs of cracking, damage around rivets on the aircraft fuselage and other defects. In response the airline has grounded 21 out of their 53 A350s. After threats of court action, in December last year the airline took the manufacturer to court for the alleged problems with the aircraft. A hearing is scheduled for late April and the airline is seeking 618 million USD, plus 4 million USD per day, as compensation from the manufacturer.
There have been a number of steps on the way to the current situation, which have included involvement by IATA, EASA, Qatar CAA and others. There are many details about this story but covering even some of them would make this a very long post. In addition, there are probably as much information and political manoeuvres behind the scenes as in public view. It should however be noted that Qatar Airways is the only airline with this problem that have decided to ground affected aircraft.
As for the two parties involved in this, on the one hand we have Qatar Airways, represented by their CEO Akbar Al Baker. He has a history of courting controversy, often triggered by his own statements. He has made inflammatory statements about women in the aviation industry, for which he later apologised. He has threatened to leave the OneWorld alliance, called the Delta CEO a “bully” and “liar” and regularly and publicly expressed direct criticism towards other competitors, manufacturers and others. Al Baker has expressed his respect for Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary and it is difficult to not wonder if his statements reflect a similar strategy of using provocation to get attention and then benefit from the free media exposure that comes along with it.
On the other hand we have Airbus, the at this point in time more faceless giant manufacturer. They seems far less interested in the attention they are getting for this situation, especially as this follows a very expensive settlement of bribery charges in 2020. It is not hard to see why the manufacturer would rather have the situation with Qatar Airways go away but even accepting the loss of a large order may not be enough to achieve this. Willie Walsh, Director General of IATA, expressed concern in reference to the Qatar Airways and Airbus situation about suppliers exploiting market strength.
Regardless of who is right or wrong in this ongoing conflict, this is a situation that should have been resolved before it became a global news story. The current media attention on does nothing good for anyone of the parties involved or for the aviation industry. More than this is not really possible to say with any certainty until more information about what went on behind the scene becomes available. What can be said with certainty is that this will surely become a case study used in aviation management courses everywhere. At least there may be a lot of learning from it by then.
It is too often possible to equate news with negative news. There are reasons of this to be found in human psychology but unfortunately this means that we often miss out on hearing about progress that can inspire and motivate more positive action. One example of this are efforts in recent years in the aviation industry to combat Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT). This was brought up in an article on the site International Airport Review (link below) and it is a piece of news that deserve to be spread further across the industry.
The base for work with this issue an international agreement called CITES, which stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Up to 2015 there were individual airline initiatives to prevent such trade but not a comprehensive aand coordinated industry strategy or any broad international cooperation. However, as attention to this issue increased over time something had to happen.
One important step to establish such cooperation was the formation of the partnership ROUTES, which is an acronym for Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species. This was initiated by USAID and brought together government, industry (e.g. Airports Council International – ACI), International Air Transport Association – IATA) and non-government organisations (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network – TRAFFIC, World Wildlife Foundation – WWF).
The work was then started by collecting data and producing reports on IWT in the aviation industry. With facts and good arguments available, awareness and training materials were developed and disseminated. ROUTES also developed technological solutions, such as a reporting app for illegal wildlife trade, which allows for anonymous reporting when there is suspicion of IWT. These reports go to the organisation Crime Stoppers for review and sharing law enforcement agencies. In the first two months after launch in September 2021 more than 120 reports were submitted by aviation personnel. In another project an algorithm to detect wildlife products during baggage screening was developed.
The ROUTES initiative has been concluded and the industry now has the information, knowledge and practices in place to continue the work of preventing IWT and wildlife products. Many companies in the industry have signed the United for Wildlife Buckingham Palace Declaration, which includes formal assessments of their IwT prevention standards, and encouraging other companies to adhere to these standards. There are however still parts of the industry which do not live up to the same standards as the companies who have fully implemented awareness and preventive measures for IWT.
I was aware of the issue of IWT and the there has been measures take in the industry. I must however admit that I was unaware of the progress made. In terms of awareness, training and preventive efforts this looks like success. Still, it seems difficult to find numbers which can validate that these measures have affected IWT. It can probably be assumed that initiatives in recent years have made IWT more difficult, but the ultimate success needs to be assessed on the effects they have had. Even so, the progress so far should be recognised and lead to further efforts to ensure that IWT will be effectively combatted.
Link to article:
How the aviation industry transformed to combat wildlife trafficking
EUROCONTROL is a pan-European, civil-military organisation with 41 member states, dedicated to supporting European aviation. Among a range of activities within the organisation is the production of a magazine called HindSight. It is a magazine on human and organisational performance in air traffic management (ATM) and its aim is to improve performance at individual, group and organisational levels.
The traditional focus of HindSight is on operational safety, but the scope has expanded to consider performance more generally, with a particular focus on improving everyday work and performance as a whole. The latest edition of HindSight became available only a few days ago and its theme is Digitalisation and Human Performance.
HindSight 33, with its 80 pages, includes a wide variety of articles from front-line staff and specialists in technology, change, safety, human factors, and human and organisational performance in aviation.
Among the highlights are:
• The many meanings of AI, by Erik Hollnagel – link
• Flight deck human factors and digitalisation: Possibilities and dilemmas, a conversation with FAA’s Kathy Abbott, by Steven Shorrock. – link
• Building adaptive capacity: Amplifying the combined strenghts of humans and machines, by Rogier Woltjer and Tom Laursen – link
• A regulator’s perspective on digitalisation and human performance, by Kathryn Jones and Anna Vereker – link
And of course, there is so much more worth reading in this issue. Here is a link to the full magazine: link
And finally, I managed to make my own contribution even to this edition. It is called “Digitalisation vs human flexibility” and you can find it here: link