Boeing’s 737 Max problem is the latest headache for airlines hungry for new planes

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An aerial view of the engines and fuselage of an unpainted Boeing 737 MAX airplane parked in storage at King County International Airport-Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, June 1, 2022.
Lindsey Wasson | Reuters

Boeing‘s warning that a production quality problem will delay deliveries of its best-selling 737 Max is another headache for airlines clamoring for new planes to handle a rebound in air travel, just ahead of the peak season.

The problem is related to two of several brackets in the aft fuselage of some 737 Max planes, including the most popular model, the Max 8.

Boeing has a backlog of 4,196 Max planes, according to a tally on its website. Boeing disclosed the production issue on Thursday but has not said how many planes are affected or how long deliveries could be delayed. The current delivery schedule of the planes stretches to the second half of the decade.

The fuselage supplier, Spirit Aerosystems, Boeing and the FAA said the problem doesn’t affect flight safety. But addressing the issue could mean time-consuming additional work. The two brackets in question are on the interior of the plane and are not as simple to reach as a concern on the outside of the fuselage would be, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun will likely comment on the issue during the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday. Boeing disclosed the issue just weeks after an executive said it was gearing up to increase output of the jets from the current rate of 31 a month.

Lengthy delays would be bad news for airlines already hamstrung by a global shortage of new aircraft. They could also hurt Boeing’s plan to improve cash flow, since airlines pay the bulk of a plane’s price upon delivery.

“It doesn’t sound like it is going to be a terribly invasive fix, but on the other hand I think everyone’s a bit spooked because of recent experience,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of AeroDynamics Advisory.

Southwest Airlines, which operates an all-Boeing 737 fleet, said it discussing the affects of the problem with the manufacturer.

“Boeing contacted us regarding an issue with a supplier’s manufacturing process that will affect the delivery of Boeing 737 MAX planes to Southwest,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “We expect this to impact our current delivery schedule; we are in discussions with Boeing to understand what that impact will be in 2023 and beyond.”

CEO Bob Jordan said on an earnings call in January that the airline expects roughly 90 Max planes this year, lowering its forecast from 100 “in light of recent discussions with Boeing and continued challenges in supply chain.”

American Airlines said it is also discussing the problem with Boeing. The airline has 88 Max aircraft on order, according to its 2022 report.

Both carriers plan to report results on April 27, when they will likely face questions about the issue.

United Airlines, which reports on Tuesday said: “Boeing is keeping us informed about this issue, and at this time we do not expect any significant impact on our capacity plans for this summer or the rest of the year.”

The problem is the latest in a string of quality problems and aircraft delays at Boeing that has also included its 787 Dreamliner planes.

A worldwide grounding and production pause of the 737 Max followed two fatal crashes of the Max. After the planes were cleared to fly again and production resumed, the pandemic threw the industry into disarray as it hemorrhaged cash and lost thousands of skilled workers.

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