Left with few options, major U.S. airlines are using Boeing’s safety crisis as leverage

Airline executives are frustrated with Boeing as its safety crisis has upended their business plans. But in a tight market for large aircraft supplied by two companies, they have little choice but do business with the U.S. plane maker.

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 a variety of strategies to try to stay in the game with Boeing, using orders of one type of plane as a placeholder to possibly take deliveries of a different model. They also are negotiating harder, looking to use production delays to get discounts from the plane maker 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.

WATCH | Is Boeing any safer 5 years after 737 MAX crashes?: 

5 years after 737 Max crashes, is Boeing any safer?

Five years after a pair of deadly crashes involving Boeing 737 Max-8s and the mass grounding of the jets, the door blew off a Boeing jet mid-flight. CBC’s Susan Ormiston breaks down the aviation giant’s struggle to salvage its reputation after the Max-8 crashes and ongoing questions about the safety of some of its jets.

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 spectre of Boeing losing one of its most loyal customers.

However, Airbus’s order book is full through 2030. On Tuesday, Kirby said United wants A321 jets but is not willing to overpay for them.

Now, there is 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.

No major issues had with Boeing, say Canadian airlines

Canada’s major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, both have Boeing aircraft in their fleet.

According to its website, Air Canada’s fleet includes the Boeing 777-300ER and 777-200LR; the Boeing 787-8 and 787-9; and the Boeing 737-8 MAX, totalling 104 aircraft. 

WestJet’s fleet, meanwhile, includes the Boeing 737-8 MAX, 737-700 NG and 737-800 NG; and the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, totalling 124 aircraft.

CBC News reached out to both companies to ask if they had any concerns regarding the safety of Boeing aircraft and if they were making changes to their fleet as a result.

A spokesperson for WestJet said that the company has “had no significant incidents with our Boeing aircraft and we maintain full confidence in the safety of our fleet and our industry leading safety standards.”

The airline works closely with Boeing on all aspects of aircraft delivery, the spokesperson added, and is in “constant communication” with the manufacturer and with the federal regulator, Transport Canada.

Air Canada told CBC News in a statement that it has operated Boeing aircraft for decades “and they have always performed reliably, comfortably and safely.”

“As well, we work closely with aircraft manufacturers on an ongoing basis and have a rigorous maintenance regime that complies with or exceeds the requirements of Transport Canada and other international industry and government agencies,” the statement read.

Tantamount to changing business model

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.

A westjet plane on the tarmac
A WestJet Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner is seen parked at a gate at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Jan. 21, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In return for a vote of confidence for the troubled MAX 10 program, American Airlines 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 for 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. But CEO Bob Jordan said the cost of operating multiple fleets is “significant.”

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

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