Exclusive: Inside the hangar at the center of the $ 1 billion jet conflict between Airbus and Qatar

DOHA, June 22 (Reuters) – Two high-tech Airbus A350 jets sit idle with their windows taped and engines covered in a floodlit hangar in the Gulf, hampered by an international lawsuit between European industrial giant Airbus (AIR.PA) and Qatar’s national carrier.

From a distance, the planes can seem like any other long-haul jet that empties the busy Doha hub. But a rare visit to the site by Reuters journalists showed what appeared to be evidence of damage to the surface of the wingtips, tail and hull.

The two planes, worth a total of around $ 300 million according to analysts, are among 23 grounded A350s at the center of a $ 1 billion lawsuit in London over whether the damage represents a potential safety 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 metallic surface that provides protection to the fuselage against lightning strikes.

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

Reuters reporters were rarely given first-hand access after requesting a visit to the sidelines of a meeting of the aviation industry in Qatar’s capital, Doha, this week.

Occasional surface defects on the A350’s set by Reuters included an elongated stretch of blisters and cracked or missing paint along the roof or crown of the nozzles.

In some areas, the protective lightning net between the hull and the paint appeared exposed and corroded.

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

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

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

EROSION

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

Qatar Airways has claimed that this can not be known until further analysis, and refuses to take more of the planes.

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

It says that the cracks are caused by the way paint, anti-lightning material called ECF and the composite structure interact. The tail does not contain all the ECF foil, which led to a technical debate about whether the damage there is caused by the same problem.

Amidst hundreds of pages of conflicting technical court documents presented by both sides, Reuters has not been able to independently confirm the cause of the damage.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker and Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury had the opportunity to mingle during the three-day industrial gathering in Qatar this week.

Asked if the relationship had improved after the incident, which included the two men sitting next to each other over dinner, Al Baker suggested that the two sides remain far apart.

“On a personal level, I’m friends with everyone, but when it comes to a problem with my company, it’s a different story. If things were settled, we would not wait for a trial to take place next year,” he said. to a news conference.

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

One of the aviation 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 acting 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

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