VIEWPOINT: Only the lawyers will win in Qatar v Airbus spat

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(PHOTO: Qatar)

It’s times like these when I wish I’d heeded mother’s advice and become a lawyer. They always get paid and the payday shaping up for the attorneys in the Qatar Airways versus Airbus fight without a doubt has the lawyers celebrating an early Christmas.

The latest round in the legal spat came on 20 December when Qatar Airways announced it has begun legal proceedings against Airbus over the A350 aircraft that suffered skin and paint damage that Qatar says is a safety problem. Airbus earlier said it was seeking an “independent legal assessment” in the dispute and said the problems with the planes are largely cosmetic and do not constitute any concerns over safety.

“We have sadly failed in all our attempts to reach a constructive solution with Airbus in relation to the accelerated surface degradation condition adversely impacting the Airbus A350 aircraft. Qatar Airways has therefore been left with no alternative but to seek a rapid resolution of this dispute via the courts,” the airline said in its statement on 20 December. “Qatar Airways currently have 21 A350 aircraft grounded by the condition and the legal proceedings have been commenced to ensure that Airbus will now address our legitimate concerns without further delay. We strongly believe that Airbus must undertake a thorough investigation of this condition to conclusively establish its full root cause. Without a proper understanding of the root cause of the condition, it is not possible for Qatar Airways to establish whether any proposed repair solution will rectify the underlying condition.”

Airbus, for its part, said it “received a formal legal claim in the English courts filed by Qatar Airways, relating to the dispute over the degradation of surface and paint on certain of Qatar Airways’ A350XWB aircraft. Airbus is in the process of analysing the contents of the claim. Airbus intends to vigorously defend its position.”

The legal proceedings, while not unheard of in the industry, are unusual in that both parties have gone very public. This kind of dispute is rare, and it should be rare, for the simple reason that once you go to court, it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, you’ve already lost.

If you’re Airbus, you may win the lawsuit, but you will lose a good customer that has bought billions of dollars worth of planes. I realise it’s not like there’s a ton of plane makers out there and Qatar is heavily invested in Airbus aircraft. But even with all of Boeing’s problems with the 787 Dreamliner and 777X, I’d bet Boeing sales teams are gearing up to woo Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker. Reports are already emerging that Qatar may switch to Boeing for a freighter order consisting of about 35 planes.

If you’re Qatar Airways, you might win the lawsuit, but in so doing will eliminate any goodwill built up over the years with Airbus. The plane maker will undoubtedly continue to sell you planes, but I’d bet that any of the usual discounts previously offered will suddenly be steeply reduced or some other way will be found for Airbus to exact its revenge.

If the damage on the planes was confined to Qatar, one might be forgiven for taking the side of Airbus. But reports by Reuters and other organisations say at least five other airlines operating in a range of climates have complained about paint or other surface problems since 2016. Airbus has until recently maintained the problem was focused on paint on Qatar’s jets, operated in desert conditions. The plane maker has said it is proposing interim solutions ranging from repairs to repainting and has accused Qatar Airways of ignoring those proposals without reasonable justification. Qatar Airways reiterated on Monday in a Reuters report that it could not be sure whether proposed repairs would work without deeper analysis.

Whichever way this corporate duel turns out, both sides have already lost. I got my start in journalism covering the courts in the US for a business journal. If there’s one thing I learned from that job it is that a smart businessperson does everything and anything they can do to avoid the courthouse steps because the only people who really win are the lawyers. Should’ve listened to mother.

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