LONDON, Nov 11 (Reuters) – Airbus ( AIR.PA ) and Qatar Airways clashed on Friday over ties to air traffic control dogs and a deluge of confidential documents as legal claims over grounded jets hit $2 billion.
The latest trial in a contract and safety dispute filled a large courtroom at London’s High Court and delved into the intricate details of “shared rides” and “search terms” as each side looked for a smoking gun showing cozy relationships with regulators.
“A shortcut should be taken,” Judge David Waksman said after sometimes testy arguments over how to handle more than 100,000 documents that could hold the key to a possible trial next year where the reputations of major players are at stake.
The hearing comes after Reuters reported on Thursday that French and Qatari leaders discussed the dispute in December 2021.
Qatar Airways is suing Airbus over damage to the painted surface and underlying anti-lightning system on A350 jets, prompting Qatar’s Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA) to ground 29 of the planes over concerns about a potential safety hazard.
Backed by European regulators, the world’s biggest planemaker is admitting quality flaws in some of its worldwide A350 fleet but insisting its flagship long-haul jet is safe.
Qatar Airways said Airbus had tried to exert influence over the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) by providing the agency with a “Line to Take” document. PR experts say this type of document covers talking points for answering media questions and high-level conversations.
“Airbus attempted, and appears to have succeeded, in exerting its influence over EASA,” the airline told the court.
An Airbus spokesperson said it had followed all relevant procedures including its decision to inform EASA of its position, “which is completely correct and normal”.
An EASA spokesperson said the European agency had “coordinated with Airbus to a limited extent only to ensure technical accuracy” for its own “Line To Take”.
The sharing of talking points emerged in Airbus emails sent to the airline as part of a discovery process.
Airbus argued that while Qatar Airways “incidentally hinted at collusion” between the aircraft manufacturer and EASA, Qatar Airways had provided very little information in the discovery process about its own dealings with the QCAA.
Instead of providing an analysis of alternative wide-body jets, for example, the airline had submitted photographs of lavatories, Airbus said in a written argument.
Although a seemingly mundane detail, industry sources say toilets are an important part of premium product comparisons.
Airbus said Qatar Airways “may have improperly colluded or conspired” with its regulator to ground aircraft and improve its commercial position, a charge the airline denies.
The groundings have triggered punitive claims of $200,000 per aircraft per day. Airbus says the groundings are invalid.
Allegations of coordination could determine how far each side must go to provide internal documents in the case, which has already led to the revelation of unprecedented details involving the workings of the $150 billion jet industry.
Qatar claimed Airbus was trying to take EASA’s support and produced an Airbus email summarizing a conversation between Chief Technical Officer Sabine Klauke and EASA’s chief in July 2021.
“I just had Patrick Ky on the phone…Patrick was absolutely determined to call his QCAA counterpart and see with him how they would help them justify putting the aircraft back in the air,” Klauke told his colleagues.
An EASA spokesperson said the aim was merely to explain EASA’s position and offer technical support to the QCAA, which has declined requests for comment during the dispute.
The independence of regulators worldwide has come under intense scrutiny after a safety crisis over the 737 MAX sparked widespread concern about close ties between the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and plane maker Boeing.
Court documents revealed US involvement for the first time in the Airbus-Qatar dispute, after Airbus notified the FAA in December 2021.
An Airbus engineering manager wrote in an email that the briefing had been received “well” with no particular concerns.
An FAA spokesperson said: “We are aware of the issue and are in contact with EASA, which certifies Airbus aircraft.”
The two sides also talked about two A350s that Airbus said Qatar continued to fly after repainting them.
Qatar Airways said the planes had only needed minor paint adjustments unlike those grounded by its regulator.
Reporting by Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Andy Mills in Doha and David Shepardson in Washington, DC; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Susan Fenton and Cynthia Osterman
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