As the Qatar Airways spotlight swings pendulum-like around its supply chain, OEMs can breathe a sigh of relief when it is not their turn to be in the laser focus of its notoriously demanding chief Akbar Al Baker.
But this can be a double-edged sword, as Boeing will testify. It was not so long ago that Al Baker was publicly chastising Seattle over the teething troubles being suffered by the 787. Airbus, meanwhile, was basking in praise as it prepared the first A350s for Qatar, with the airline chief declaring that the twinjet would be “a fantastic aeroplane”.
That situation has dramatically reversed, with Al Baker venting his frustration this summer about how Airbus has managed quality problems dogging A350 production. Meanwhile, Boeing has secured option conversions from Qatar on 30 Dreamliners (along with 10 additional 777s), with the carrier’s boss waxing lyrical during a Washington DC press briefing about “the quality of its product and its dedication to providing world-class customer service”.
But the real concern for Airbus will be at the other end of its product line, where it has been locked in a wrangle with Qatar Airways over the technical issues suffered by Pratt & Whitney’s PW1100G geared turbofan on the A320neo. After exercising walk-away clauses on the first four of 50 A320neos it has on order, Al Baker has made his point firmly to Toulouse by signing a commitment for 60 737 Max aircraft to “mitigate that risk” around deliveries. While the Boeing deal is not a firm contract, it is difficult to see the Max being a hollow gesture after being trumpeted in such a public way.
Al Baker’s actions transmit clear signals from his Washington gathering across the pond about the seriousness of his intent. But there is no mistaking that the deal also sends a key message across town to Capitol Hill amid the open-skies dispute begun by the major US airlines over $40 billion-plus of subsidies that the Gulf carriers have allegedly enjoyed.
In a comment that must have rankled the US airline chiefs, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner was clearly “on message” during the event with Qatar, when he pointed to “the impact an agreement like this has on American lives”.
When asked about the dispute, Al Baker said he expected “the economic relationship” between the USA and Qatar would prevail, rather than “vested interests of any business entity”.
So from business and aero-political perspectives, the Washington briefing looks to have hit the bullseye.