Airbus and Qatar Airways skirmished over relations with aviation watchdogs and an “ocean” of confidential documents recently as claims in a court battle over grounded jets hit USD 2 billion.Packing out a large courtroom in the London High Court, the latest hearing in a high-stakes contractual and safety dispute laboured over ‘shared drives’ and ‘search terms’ as each side looks for a smoking gun showing cosy relations with regulators.
“A short-cut ought to be taken,” Judge David Waksman said after sometimes testy arguments about how to handle more than 100,000 documents that may hold the key to a possible trial next year in which the reputations of major players are at stake.
Qatar Airways is suing Airbus over damage to the painted surface and underlying anti-lightning system of A350 jets, which has prompted Qatar’s Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA) to ground 29 of the planes over its concerns of a potential safety risk.
Backed by European regulators, the world’s largest planemaker acknowledges quality flaws in part of the A350 fleet but maintains its premier long-haul jet is safe.
Qatar Airways said Airbus had sought to exert influence over the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) by providing the agency with a “Line To Take” when communicating with others as well as engaging in high-level conversations.
Public relations experts say a “Line To Take” is a set of talking points often used in Airbus and other organisations, such as government departments in Britain, to prepare answers for media.
“Airbus sought to, 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 entirely proper and normal”.
A spokesperson for EASA said the European agency had “coordinated with Airbus to a limited extent only to ensure technical accuracy” of its own “Line To Take”.
The sharing of talking points emerged in Airbus emails supplied to the airline as part of a discovery process.
Airbus argued that while “casually hint(ing) at collusion” between the planemaker and EASA, Qatar Airways had provided very little information on its own contacts with the QCAA.
Instead of providing an analysis of alternative wide-body jets, the airline handed over photographs of toilets, Airbus said in a written argument.
Although apparently a mundane detail, airline industry sources say toilets can be part of premium product comparisons.
Airbus said Qatar Airways “may have wrongfully colluded or conspired” with its regulator to ground planes and improve its commercial position, a charge the airline denies.
The groundings have triggered penalty claims of USD 200,000 per aircraft per day. Airbus says the groundings are invalid.
The independence of regulators worldwide has been under increased scrutiny following a safety crisis over the 737 MA which triggered widespread concerns over close ties between the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and planemaker Boeing.
Court documents revealed US involvement for the first time, after Airbus briefed the FAA in December last year.
An Airbus engineering executive wrote in an email the briefing had been “well received” with no specific concerns.
An FAA spokesperson said, “We’re aware of the issue and are in contact with EASA, which certifies Airbus aircraft.”