Exclusive: Inside the hangar at the center of the $1 billion Airbus-Qatar dispute

DOHA, June 22 (Reuters) – Two high-tech Airbus A350 jets are parked with windows covered and engines covered in a lighted hangar on the Gulf, plagued by an international legal dispute between European industrial giant Airbus (AIR.PA) and Qatar’s national carrier.

From a distance, the planes might look like any other long-haul jets crowding Doha’s bustling downtown. But a rare site visit by Reuters journalists showed what appeared to be evidence of surface damage to parts of the wings, tail and hull.

The two planes, worth about $300 million combined, according to analysts, are among 23 A350s grounded at the center of a $1 billion court battle in London over whether the damage poses a potential safety risk, something that Airbus vehemently denies it.

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The planes were grounded by the Qatari regulator after premature erosion of the paintwork exposed damage to a metallic undercoat that provides protection to the fuselage from lightning.

Other airlines continue to fly the A350 after European regulators declared the aircraft safe.

Reuters journalists had rare first-hand access after requesting to visit on the sidelines of an airline industry meeting in Qatar’s capital Doha this week.

Sporadic surface flaws on the A350s seen by Reuters included an elongated patch of blistered and cracked or missing paint along the roof or crown of the jets.

In some areas, including the curved wingtips, the protective lightning mesh that sits between the hull and paintwork looked exposed and corroded.

Elsewhere it appeared to be missing, leaving areas of the composite hull exposed.

The paint on the tail of one of the A350s with the brown Qatar Airways Oryx emblem was marred by cracked and missing paint that exposed the layer below.

Reuters saw small areas of what appeared to be frayed or delaminated carbon strands on the hull and so-called ‘rivet flare’ or missing paint from the fastener heads in key areas of the wings.

Airbus and Qatar Airways did not immediately comment on the Reuters findings.

Airbus shares were down 3% on Wednesday morning.

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Airbus acknowledges quality flaws in the A350s, but denies that they pose any safety risk due to the number of backup and tolerance systems built into the design.

Qatar Airways has argued that this cannot be known until further analysis and is refusing to take more planes.

Airbus has argued that some paint erosion is a feature of the carbon composite technology used to build all modern long-haul jets – a necessary trade-off for weight savings.

He says the cracks are caused by the way the paint, the anti-lightning material called ECF and the composite structure interact. The tail does not all contain the ECF sheet, leading to debate as to whether the damage comes from the same problem.

Qatar Airways questioned Airbus’ explanation, telling a UK court that its similar Boeing 787s do not have the same problems.

Amid hundreds of pages of conflicting technical court documents filed by both sides, Reuters was unable to independently verify the cause of the damage.

Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker and Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury had the opportunity to mingle during the three-day industry meeting in Qatar this week.

Asked if their relationship improved after the event, which included the two men sitting next to each other over dinner, Al Baker suggested the two sides remain distant.

“Personally, I’m everyone’s friend, but when it comes to an issue with my company, it’s a different story. If things were resolved, we wouldn’t still be expecting a trial to take place next year,” he told a news conference. .

Faury said this week that he was in discussion with the airline and reported “progress in the sense that we are communicating”.

One of the airline industry’s top officials expressed concern after the Doha meeting that the dispute could have a toxic effect on contractual ties across the industry.

“It would be much better if we were dealing with friends than in court,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, told reporters.

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Reporting by Alexander Cornwell and Tim Hepher Editing by Mark Potter and Louise Heavens

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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