Qatar wins speedy trial, loses procedural claims in Airbus clash

·3 min read

LONDON, May 26 (Reuters) - A British judge on Thursday granted Qatar Airways a relatively quick trial against Airbus in a row over jetliner safety but dismissed several procedural claims including a bid by the airline to split the high-profile case into two parts.

The companies have been locked in a dispute for months over the airworthiness of Europe's newest long-haul jet after damage to its protective outer skin shattered one of aviation's closest commercial relationships.

The judge's decision means Airbus is free to attempt to keep delivering A350s to Qatar Airways, triggering payment clauses, or to try to sell rejected planes to carriers like Air India which industry sources say could step in as a buyer.

Qatar Airways asked Britain's High Court to split the trial and order Airbus to perform a deeper analysis of issues affecting a system for protecting the planes against lightning, which on average hits commercial jets once a year.

It also sought to prevent Airbus attempting to deliver more of its A350 jets to the emirate or re-selling any undelivered aircraft to other airlines while the dispute drags on.

The judge rejected both those demands, but agreed to Qatar's request for a speedy trial on the main safety and contractual dispute, adding an indicative window from June next year in what could be a three-month summer trial.

"I am in absolutely no doubt that this case should be tried as soon as is practically possible," Judge David Waksman said, adding it was in the public interest.

Speaking to a courtroom packed with representatives of top law firms, the judge deplored the legal circus surrounding the falling-out between two of aviation's most powerful players.

"The costs for both sides are way over the top in my judgment. There is far too much time that is being spent here," Waksman said, as the two sides argued about who should pick up the tab.

Qatar has grounded more than 20 A350s after erosion to the painted surface exposed damage or gaps in an anti-lightning mesh sandwiched between the carbon fuselage and painted exterior.

The Gulf carrier says this raises questions over the safety of the affected jets and is refusing to take more deliveries pending more analysis, while seeking $1 billion in compensation.

Airbus acknowledges quality issues but insists the airplanes are safe and has continued to attempt to force the airline to take delivery of more planes as they are built.

Other airlines continue to fly the A350 without grounding them after European regulators said the paint problem did not affect their airworthiness. Privately, senior airline industry officials have told Reuters both sides must find a settlement.

The dispute widened in January when Airbus revoked a separate contract with Qatar for smaller A321neo jets. The same judge last month rejected a bid by the airline to reverse this.

Airbus claimed partial victory over the preliminary rulings but people close to the airline said the key focus is the trial which could provoke debate on decisions during A350 development.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher;Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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