Airbus has agreed a settlement with French, British and US authorities over investigations into allegations of bribery and corruption that could result in the aerospace group paying fines worth billions of pounds.
The investigations concern allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption in the group’s civil aviation arm, particularly relating to irregularities concerning middlemen, or “third-party consultants”.
A settlement would remove a significant source of financial uncertainty hanging over Airbus, the world’s second largest aerospace manufacturer after its US rival Boeing.
“Airbus confirms that it has reached agreement in principle with the French Parquet National Financier, the UK Serious Fraud Office and the US authorities,” the aerospace group said.
“These agreements are made in the context of investigations into allegations of bribery and corruption as well as compliance with the US international traffic in arms regulations (Itar). They remain subject to approval by French and UK courts and US court and regulator,” it added.
Airbus said it could not comment on precise details regarding its talks with the investigating authorities.
Analysts had predicted fines of more than €3bn (£2.5bn) for Airbus. That would compare with annual profits of €4.3bn in the 2018 financial year on revenues of €63.7bn. Airbus, whose main office is in Toulouse, France, has major wing manufacturing operations in Broughton, North Wales, as well as factories across Europe.
The settlement will remove a major obstacle for Airbus’s chief executive, Guillaume Faury, who took over in April 2019. Fewer legal risks would allow Airbus executives to focus on challenges including ramping up production of the A320 aircraft, its rival to the grounded Boeing 737 Max, as well as developing planes with lower carbon emissions.
The SFO’s investigation was started in July 2016 under his predecessor, Tom Enders, after the company flagged up the irregularities itself – which analysts suggest may have benefited it in settlement negotiations. The French investigation started in 2017 and the US followed the year after.
The SFO confirmed it had reached a deferred prosecution agreement with Airbus, subject to court approval at a public hearing on Friday.
Airbus has been investigated by French and British authorities over suspected corruption dating back over a decade. It has also faced investigations in the US over suspected violations of export controls.
The settlement would be separate to an investigation into a UK-based subsidiary, GPT Special Project Management, which is alleged to have paid at least £14m in bribes to secure a £2bn military contract with the Saudi Arabian government. Filings in June revealed that Airbus planned to shut down that business at the end of 2019.
The GPT investigation, which started in 2012, is ongoing. It is thought that the SFO is awaiting permission to proceed with a potentially diplomatically sensitive investigation from the UK’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox. Cox has been criticised for his department’s failure to allow the investigation to proceed.
The SFO declined to comment beyond saying the investigation is ongoing. The attorney general’s office declined to comment.