Exclusive: Inside the hangar at the center of the billion-dollar Airbus dispute with Qatar

DOHA, June 22 (Reuters) – Two high-tech Airbus A350s sit idle, their windows sealed and their engines covered in a lighted hangar in the Gulf, hampered by an international legal dispute between European industrial giant Airbus (AIR.PA) and the Qatar. national carrier.

From a distance, the planes may look like any other long-haul airliner crowding the busy hub of Doha. But a rare on-site visit by Reuters reporters showed what appeared to be evidence of surface damage to parts of the wings, tail and hull.

The two planes, with a combined value of around $300 million according to analysts, are among 23 A350s grounded at the center of a billion-dollar legal battle in London over whether the damage represents a potential security risk, which Airbus strongly denies.

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The planes were grounded by Qatar’s regulator after premature paint erosion exposed damage to a metal underlay that protects the fuselage from lightning strikes.

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

Reuters journalists gained rare first-hand access after requesting the visit on the sidelines of an airline industry meeting in the Qatari capital, Doha, this week.

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

In some areas, including on the curved wingtips, the lightning protection netting that sits between the hull and the paintwork appeared exposed and corroded.

In other parts it appeared to be missing, leaving areas of the composite shell exposed.

The paint on the tail of one of the A350s emblazoned with Qatar Airways’ Arabian Oryx brown emblem was pockmarked with cracked and missing paint that exposed the layer underneath.

Reuters saw small areas of what appeared to be frayed or delaminated carbon threads on the hull and what is known as ‘rivet rash’ or lost paint from fastener heads on major fender areas .

Airbus and Qatar Airways had no immediate comment on Reuters’ findings.

Airbus shares were down 3% on Wednesday morning.

EROSION

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

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

Airbus has argued that some paint erosion is a feature of the carbon composite technology used to build all modern long-haul aircraft – a necessary compromise to reduce weight.

He says the cracks are caused by the way the paint, the lightning arresting material called ECF and the composite structure interact. The tail does not all contain the ECF sheet, prompting some debate as to whether the damage there is from the same issue.

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

Amid hundreds of pages of conflicting technical records presented by both parties, 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 meet at the three-day industry meeting in Qatar this week.

When asked if the relationship improved after the event, which included the pair sitting next to each other during dinner, Al Baker suggested the two parties stay apart.

“On a personal level, I’m friends with everyone, but when it comes to a problem with my business, it’s a different story. If things were sorted out, we wouldn’t be waiting for that yet. a trial takes place next year,” he told a press conference.

Faury said this week he was in discussions with the airline and reported “progress in the direction 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 dealt with friends rather than the courts,” Willie Walsh, chief executive 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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