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Airlines try to navigate Boeing woes despite lack of alternatives

Airline executives appear to be frustrated with Boeing as its safety crisis – a result of several incidents in only a few months – has upended their business plans. However, in a tight market for large aircraft supplied by two companies, they have little choice but to do business with the U.S. planemaker.

Despite some public displays of alarm – United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby flew to France to talk with Airbus as Boeing’s latest crisis erupted – carriers are still negotiating new plane orders, looking to leverage Boeing’s delays to secure better terms.

Boeing’s delivery schedule faces extended delays following a Jan. 5 mid-flight cabin blowout that exposed problems with safety and quality control in its manufacturing processes. But rival Airbus already has a backlog of orders that makes shifting over a non-starter.

Instead, airlines are adopting various strategies to try to stay in the game with Boeing, using orders of one type of plane as placeholders to possibly take deliveries of a different model. They are also negotiating harder, looking to use production delays to get discounts from the planemaker on new orders and compensation for financial losses.

“Boeing customers don’t have much option but to stick with Boeing whether they like it or not,” said Scott Hamilton, managing director at aviation consulting firm Leeham Company.

Kirby has been among the most vocal in expressing frustrations with Boeing. He met with Airbus after regulators grounded all of United’s Boeing 737 Max 9 fleet and put a big question mark over certification of the larger variant Max 10, which was due for deliveries this year and was to be the cornerstone of United’s fleet.

United has ordered 277 Max 10 jets with options for another 200, but the tumult at Boeing moved the company to look at Airbus’ A321neo jets as an alternative. Those talks raised the specter of Boeing losing one of its most loyal customers.

However, Airbus’ order book is full through 2030. On Tuesday, Kirby said United wants A321 jets but is unwilling to overpay for them.

Now, there is a growing realization inside United that the carrier won’t be able to find one solution to its Max 10 problem, a person familiar with the matter said.

Instead, United is looking to use the delayed Boeing order to extract better deals for other planes, the person said. United has asked Boeing to start building Max 9s for delivery and plans to convert those orders into Max 10s once that aircraft is certified, Kirby said.

Several weeks ago, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom blasted Boeing for its persistent quality issues, asking the jet manufacturer to get its act together. Last week, it placed its first-ever order for Max 10 jets to secure an alternative to its Airbus A321 planes.

The Texas-based carrier has had to deal with Boeing’s delivery delays, including for the 787 Dreamliner, which not only hampered its efforts to capitalize on the post-pandemic travel rebound but also drove up its costs.

In return for a vote of confidence for the troubled Max 10 program, Chief Financial Officer Devon May said American had negotiated options to convert those orders into Max 8s or Max 9s. Its supply contract also provides financial compensation from Boeing for delivery delays.

For airlines like Southwest, one of Boeing’s primary customers, transitioning away from Boeing is tantamount to changing their business model. It would entail heavy investments in maintenance, training and technologies.

Airbus has long tried to woo Southwest with its smaller A220 as a substitute for Boeing’s delayed Max 7. However, CEO Bob Jordan said the cost of operating multiple fleets is “significant.”

“A strong Boeing is great for Southwest Airlines,” Jordan said at Tuesday’s JP Morgan industrial conference. It’s great for our industry, too.”

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