When manufacturers set out to define a new aircraft, they always say their product decisions are driven by long discussions with airlines. But do the airframers really listen?

As Boeing, Embraer and ATR work on defining new aircraft to enter service toward the end of the decade, Airbus is experiencing how dangerously wrong things can go when key customers differ with product decisions.

The heads of both Qatar Airways and Emirates are infuriated by Airbus's mid-year revision of the A350-1000—which is intended to improve performance but would increase weight—and they are demanding that the aircraft maker reconsider the revision. This disagreement puts at risk 50% of the customer base and more than 50% of the backlog for the aircraft type.

Emirates President Tim Clark is aiming uncharacteristically harsh words at Airbus, saying he does not accept the changes that Airbus and Rolls-Royce chose for the A350-1000.

“We want the original specification,” Clark says. “I don't remember that we wanted something new and I really wonder why they did not ask.” He asserts that Airbus executives “kind of assumed that we would take it.”

Emirates is concerned that the A350-1000 will become a more expensive aircraft than the one it signed for, once operating costs, extra weight and higher maintenance rates in its power-by-the-hour deal with Rolls-Royce are taken into account.

The most recent developments surrounding the largest A350 variant could have serious consequences. Emirates originally ordered 50 -900s and 20 -1000s, then it considered taking 50 -1000s and 20 -900s instead, which would have meant much higher revenues for Airbus. Now Emirates' revised plan is off again.

Even more worrisome for Airbus is that Emirates is clearly losing confidence in the manufacturer's ability to deliver on its promises. The most recent delay for the A350-900, announced just days before the Dubai Air Show, has only worsened the situation. “They told us this [kind of delay] would never happen again and everything is under control,” says Clark. He and other executives are alarmed that the slip of as many as six months happened very early, before assembly of the first aircraft has begun. The Boeing 787, which eventually was close to four years late, encountered the first of several delays shortly after its rollout; Airbus officials say they are delaying now to fix problems, rather than letting them grow bigger, as Boeing did.

Clark's sharp words, however, seemed like an understated first act compared to the theatrics Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker unleashed on Airbus later the same day. First, Al Baker stood up the aircraft maker at what was supposed to be a joint order announcement at the air show. Then, minutes later, he publicly harangued Airbus for the “impasse” in their negotiations for five A380s and 50 A320NEOs. Al Baker, who once accused Boeing of being run by “lawyers” and “bean-counters,” said, “I think that Airbus still has to learn how to build aircraft.”

The Qatar CEO also echoed Clark's concerns about the A350-1000 and the fact that Airbus is reconsidering the specification for it.

Airbus's chief operating officer for customers, John Leahy, countered that “we are not going to change the -1000 spec.” Leahy, who bore the brunt of Al Baker's public criticism, concedes that perhaps Airbus needs to better explain the technical benefits of the configuration change.

Al Baker left open whether Qatar will honor its A350 order, the largest for the type at 80 aircraft (20 -800s, 40 -900s and 20 -1000s).

Before the day was done, though, Al Baker did sign a deal for up to eight A380s (including three options), doubling his orderbook for the type, as well as 50 A320NEOs, taking 30 options for good measure, too. Al Baker attributed the troubles in negotiations to “bloody lawyers” involved in sorting out the terms of the A380 and A320NEO deal. He says pricing was not the issue.

Fleet options for the two fast-growing Middle Eastern carriers will depend in part on Boeing's next steps.

Clark says that if Airbus cannot deliver, Emirates could simply order more Boeing 777s, although the A350-900 is penciled in to replace the 777-300ER.

“We always build in exit clauses in the contracts, but that is a measure of last resort,” Clark says. He points out that Emirates could have easily dropped its A380 order, given the delays in that program, but stuck to it and ordered more. To guarantee its growth plans, Emirates ordered 50 additional 777-300ERs at the air show here last week.

Moreover, Emirates is interested to see what Boeing plans for the 777 refresher program, the 777-8X and 777-9X. Clark hoped for an entry into service around 2017 but says he has given up on that, recognizing that Boeing has too much on its plate in the near term to achieve that target.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes President/CEO James Albaugh says, “we are looking at the end of this decade for this airplane.” The aircraft maker is assessing the nonrecurring costs of the program and the technologies to feed it. Clark wants the updated 777 to be 12-13% more efficient than current aircraft. And while he would like to be able to carry 360 passengers with a full cargo load between Los Angeles and Dubai, Clark acknowledges that that “is a big ask.”

General Electric expects to be able to mature technologies for another 2-3 years before locking in the technical configuration for the GE90X that will power the new 777s.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways also has issues with Airbus's freight strategy. Al Baker says Airbus is neglecting the A330 passenger-to-freighter (P2F) conversion to sell A330-200 freighters to customers instead. He therefore may dispose of Qatar's A330s and buy converted Boeing 767s.

Leahy says the P2F conversion effort is not a priority, given Airbus's workload with the A320NEO and A350, though he suggests that a joint-venture offering could emerge.

Al Baker says he is waiting to hear if ST Aerospace will offer a modification, which could cause him to stick with the A330. The Singaporean company is coy about its plans, noting only that “we are exploring some new [P2F] capabilities, but as it is still at its infancy stage of explorations, we will only be able to share plans when it becomes firmed.”

The situation underlines the weakness of Airbus's freighter portfolio—the A320 P2F program and A380 freighter have been canceled, leaving only the A330-200F to serve the market.