Airbus and Qatar Airways have recently clashed over relations with aviation regulators and an “ocean” of confidential documents as claims in a court battle over grounded jets reached $2 billion.
The latest hearing in the high-stakes contract and security dispute, which packed a large courtroom at London’s High Court, concerned “shared drives” and “search terms” as each side sought a smoking gun to show cozy relations with regulators.
“There should be a shortcut,” Judge David Waksman said after sometimes-irritated arguments over how to handle more than 100,000 documents that could be 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 paintwork and basic lightning protection system of the A350 jets, prompting the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA) to ground 29 planes over concerns of a potential safety risk.
The world’s biggest planemaker, backed by European regulators, acknowledges quality flaws in part of the A350 fleet but says its long-haul premium plane is safe.
Qatar Airways said Airbus tried to exert influence over the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) by giving the agency a “Line To Take” when communicating with others as well as engaging in high-level conversations.
Public relations experts say the “Line To Take” is a set of talking points often used at Airbus and other organizations such as government departments in Britain to prepare responses to the media.
“Airbus tried, and appears to have succeeded, to exert its influence on EASA,” the airline said in court.
An Airbus spokesman said it followed all relevant procedures, including its decision to inform EASA of its position, “which is completely correct and normal”.
An EASA spokesman said the European agency “coordinated with Airbus only to a limited extent to ensure the technical accuracy” of its own “Line To Take”.
The sharing of talking points appeared in Airbus emails that were provided to the airline as part of the discovery process.
Airbus argued that while Qatar Airways “casually hinted (implied) collusion” between the aircraft manufacturer and EASA, it provided very little information about its own contacts with the QCAA.
Instead of providing an analysis of alternative wide-body jets, the airline submitted photos of the restrooms, Airbus said in a written argument.
Although a seemingly mundane detail, airline industry sources say toilets can be part of the comparison of premium products.
Airbus said Qatar Airways “may have improperly colluded or colluded” with its regulator on ground planes and improved its business position, which the airline denies.
The grounding prompted claims of a fine of $200,000 per aircraft per day. Airbus says the grounding is invalid.
The independence of regulators around the world is under increased scrutiny following the safety crisis surrounding the 737 MA, which raised widespread concerns about the close ties between the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aircraft manufacturer Boeing.
Court documents revealed US involvement for the first time since Airbus informed the FAA last December.
Airbus’ chief engineer wrote in an email that the briefing was “well received” with no specific concerns.
An FAA spokesman said: “We are aware of the issue and are in contact with EASA, which certifies Airbus aircraft.”