Airbus was allegedly involved in “collusion” with the European aviation regulator over the response to its A350 aircraft being grounded by Qatar Airways due to potential safety concerns, the High Court was told.
The aircraft manufacturing giant is accused of “exerting its influence” over the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and providing it with a “line to take” after the Middle Eastern carrier identified degradation to paintwork on a number of jets.
Qatar Airways claimed Airbus was “the tail wagging the regulatory dog” at the latest court hearing in a civil dispute over the “next generation” long-range A350 airliner.
Airbus, which rejected the idea that EASA acted improperly, has also alleged that Qatar Airways may have “colluded or conspired” with its own national regulator to improve its commercial position with Airbus in relation to compensation.
Qatar Airways, the first airline to take delivery of the A350, is suing Airbus over defects to the surface of the its airframe, with it concerned that this could impact the planes’ airworthiness and protection against lighting strikes.
The issue prompted the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA) to ground 29 aircraft in Qatar Airway’s A350 fleet, but EASA has previously concluded that the condition did not affect the jets’ airworthiness.
Airbus argues its aircraft is safe and has previously proposed a repair scheme to tackle the condition .
At a preliminary hearing in London on Friday, lawyers for Qatar Airways sought greater disclosure from Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury over interactions with EASA, ahead of an expected trial in June next year.
Philip Shepherd KC, for the airline, told the court that Mr Faury had “extensive” involvement with EASA, was “the man calling the shots” over the handling of the A350 issue and as such was a “repository of documents”.
“He was managing what Airbus called the crisis in relation to the A350,” Mr Shepherd added.
In written submissions, the barrister said the manufacturer had relied on EASA reaching “independent” conclusions over the effect of the aircrafts’ condition.
He said that from disclosure so far in the case “it is now apparent that in fact Airbus was anxiously seeking to ‘convince’ EASA of its position, and providing EASA with a ‘Line to Take’ when communicating with others.”
Airbus had “extensive contact” with EASA when the regulator was producing its reports, Mr Shepherd said, alleging that it was “led by the chin” and “relying on Airbus’ assurances, apparently contrary to its own observations”.
“Airbus sought to, and appears to have succeeded, in exerting its influence over EASA,” Mr Shepherd added.
In court, Mr Shepherd highlighted a July 2021 email from Sabine Klauke, chief technical officer of Airbus, which referred to a call she had with Patrick Ky, executive director of EASA.
She said in one part of the email: “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.”
Mr Shepherd claimed in relation to the email: “What it looks like is collusion in a relationship where the mighty Airbus is the tail wagging the regulatory dog”.
He added: “In short, it amounts to EASA-Airbus collusion”.
Lord David Wolfson KC, representing Airbus, said the email was “standard communication that you would expect of any body like Airbus with its regulator”.
“The idea that EASA has acted in some way improperly is utterly baseless and an allegation that shouldn’t be made whatsoever,” he added.
He told the court that Airbus had already provided “vast amounts of disclosure” and accused Qatar Airways of making a “tit for tat” disclosure application.
Lord Wolfson said Airbus had already offered to make disclosure in relation to Mr Faury and EASA, which was subsequently ordered by judge Mr Justice Waksman.
In written submissions, Lord Wolfson said “hints” at collusion between Airbus and EASA were made “without any basis”.
He added that part of the manufacturer’s case was that Qatar Airways “acted in bad faith” in relation to the QCAA’s decisions to ground its aircraft and “may have wrongfully colluded or conspired with the QCAA with a view to attempting to improve (Qatar Airways’) commercial position against Airbus”.
In his own written arguments, Mr Shepherd said there had been no collusion and pointed to internal Airbus documents that showed the manufacturer “well understood the seriousness of the issue and that it was a genuine issue, and not about money”.
The court heard that the degradation issue was first discovered in November 2020 when an A350, of which 53 were delivered to Qatar Airways, was being repainted in “Qatar World Cup colours”, with the aircraft still grounded in Toulouse, France.
Lord Wolfson said in written submissions that Airbus that had learnt that two of Qatar Airways’ aircraft said to be showing surface degradation had received “minor paint ‘touch up’ works” and continued to operate – something he said was “highly relevant” amid the airline’s concerns about the airworthiness of its A350 fleet.
Mr Justice Waksman made other rulings on case management on Friday, with a further preliminary hearing due to be held next month.