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United Airlines boss says firm will consider alternatives to Boeing’s next plane

United said it expected to lose money in the first three months of the year because of the grounding of its Boeing 737 Max 9 jets (David Zalubowski/AP)
United said it expected to lose money in the first three months of the year because of the grounding of its Boeing 737 Max 9 jets (David Zalubowski/AP)

The chief executive of United Airlines has said he is “disappointed” in ongoing manufacturing problems at Boeing that have led to the grounding of dozens of his company’s jetliners, and that the airline will consider alternatives to buying a future, larger version of the Boeing 737 Max.

United Airlines boss Scott Kirby said that Boeing needed “real action” to restore its previous reputation for quality.

Mr Kirby’s comments came a day after United disclosed that it expected to lose money in the first three months of this year because of the grounding of its Boeing 737 Max 9 jets.

United has 79 of these planes, which federal regulators grounded more than two weeks ago after a panel blew out of an Alaska Airlines Max 9 mid-flight, leaving a gaping hole in the plane.

Investigators are looking into whether bolts that help hold the panel in place were missing or broke off.

Mr Kirby said on CNBC that he believed the Max 9s could be cleared to fly again soon, “but I’m disappointed that the manufacturing challenges do keep happening at Boeing”.

At times over the past few years, manufacturing flaws have held up deliveries of Max jets and a larger Boeing plane, the 787. Last year, United received 24 fewer Boeing aircraft than it expected.

United has a standing order for Max 10 jets, a larger version of the Max line. But that model and a smaller one, the Max 7, are years behind schedule for being certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. The grounding of the Max 9 jets is likely to further complicate Boeing’s drive to get the new models approved.

Mr Kirby said the Max 10 was at least five years behind schedule and could be pushed further into the future.

“I think this is the straw — the Max 9 grounding — is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for us,” he told CNBC.

“We’re going to at least build a plan that doesn’t have the Max 10 in it.”

Mr Kirby wasn’t specific about what planes the airline could acquire instead of the Max 10, but he noted that there was only one other global manufacturer of such large planes — Boeing’s European rival Airbus.

Doing without the Max 10 would probably mean United would not grow as fast as it had hoped, Mr Kirby added.