LONDON, UK — Airbus is making design changes to its A350 passenger jets amidst a $2 billion conflict with Qatar Airways over surface damage.

The legal battle between the two companies centers around the safety impact of deteriorated surface paint on the aircraft, which has exposed corrosion or gaps in a sub-layer of metallic lightning protection. The issue centers around the use of a layer of copper foil between the carbon fuselage and outer paint on A350 jets, which is designed to allow lightning strikes to be dissipated safely. The case has also sparked a debate on flight safety.

In November 2021, Airbus announced that it was investigating the use of a new material called perforated copper foil (PCF) for its A350 passenger jets. The company decided to explore this option due to the material's lighter weight compared to the current expanded copper foil (ECF) and because it would potentially reduce cracking. Qatar Airways, which is currently engaged in a legal dispute with Airbus over surface damage on the A350 jets, has called on the company to provide more information about the change. Airbus has confirmed that it began using the new material on a limited basis in late 2021.

"PCF is being used on rear-section parts on aircraft delivered from the end of 2022," an Airbus spokesman said.

After the conclusion of the recent preliminary hearing, Judge David Waksman deemed the decision to adopt the new design as crucial to the ongoing legal case between Airbus and Qatar Airways. The Gulf carrier has attributed the surface damage to a potential design flaw, while Airbus said the previous design is the highest-tech and safe.

The legal dispute between Airbus and Qatar Airways, which initially centered around damage to the painted surface of certain A350 jets, has now expanded to a comprehensive examination of the technology used in the European planemaker's latest-generation widebody aircraft. The A350 is a competitor to Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.

While European regulators have stated that the A350 jets are safe, Qatar Airways has argued that this cannot be confirmed without further detailed analysis. The airline is requesting access to raw modeling data that would enable its technical experts to simulate the impact of lightning strikes on the aircraft. However, tensions rose in court last week on Thursday when Airbus revealed that the French government rejected sharing data models of the aircraft, citing concerns about cyber attacks on such information. Some of the A350s are used by European governments.

Qatar Airways has accused Airbus of employing a new tactic to prevent the release of information that could strengthen its case, following a previous unsuccessful attempt by the planemaker to use a blocking law to protect French interests. However, in a rare display of agreement, lawyers for both companies have provisionally agreed to establish a secure method for the sharing of the data in question.

The legal dispute between the two companies has also garnered the attention of leaders from both France and Qatar, which have strong diplomatic and economic relations.

As the settlement talks continue, if no agreement is reached, the two sides are headed for a highly unusual corporate trial in June. During the preliminary hearings, a recurring point of contention has been the number of emails and other records that should be shared between Airbus and Qatar Airways ahead of the trial.

Last week, a four-way preparatory meeting between Airbus, Qatar Airways, and regulators from Qatar and Europe was abruptly canceled and is expected to be rescheduled later this month. Additionally, the court ordered Airbus to disclose information about the compensation agreements it has made with other airlines related to the issue.

In 2021, several airlines apart from Qatar Airways had reported defects in the painted surface of A350s, however, only Qatar Airways grounded the aircraft as it was ordered by the Qatari regulator.