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Airbus, Qatar Airways clash over regulators, email haul at London hearing

By Tim Hepher

LONDON (Reuters) -Airbus and Qatar Airways skirmished on Friday over relations with aviation watchdogs and a deluge of confidential documents as legal claims over grounded jets hit $2 billion.

Filling a large courtroom in the London High Court, the latest procedural hearing in a high-stakes contractual and safety dispute laboured over the intricate details of "shared drives" and "search terms" as each side looked 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.

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 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 worldwide 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" document. Public relations experts say this kind of document covers talking points for answering media queries and high-level conversations.

"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".

REGULATOR TIES

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 in the discovery process on its own contacts with the QCAA.

Instead of providing an analysis of alternative wide-body jets, for example, the airline had handed over photographs of toilets, Airbus said in a written argument.

Although an apparently mundane detail, industry sources say toilets are a key 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 $200,000 per aircraft per day. Airbus says the groundings are invalid.

Allegations of coordination could determine how far each side has to go in providing internal documents in the case, which has already led to the disclosure of unprecedented detail involving the functioning of the $150 billion jet industry.

Claiming Airbus tried to enlist EASA's support, Qatar produced an Airbus email summarising a call between Chief Technical Officer Sabine Klauke and EASA's boss in July 2021.

"I just had Patrick Ky on the phone....Patrick was fully committed to call his QCAA counterpart and see with him how they would help them to justify putting the aircraft back in the air," Klauke told colleagues.

An EASA spokesperson said the aim was purely 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 been under intense scrutiny following a safety crisis over the 737 MAX which triggered widespread concerns over close ties between the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and planemaker Boeing.

Court documents revealed U.S. involvement for the first time in the Airbus-Qatar dispute, after Airbus briefed the FAA in December 2021.

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."

The two sides also sparred over two A350s that Airbus said Qatar continued to fly after apparently repainting them.

Qatar Airways said the planes had only needed minor paint touch-ups unlike those grounded by it regulator.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Andy Mills in Doha and David Shepardson in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Susan Fenton and Cynthia Osterman)