United is scrambling for Airbus jets as it looks to replace Boeing 737 Max 10 orders that are at least 5 years behind schedule

United Airlines Holdings Inc. is close to securing three dozen or more Airbus A321neo jets from aircraft lessors as it looks to replace Boeing Co. 737 Max 10 orders that are at least five years behind schedule, according to people familiar with the matter.

The carrier is in final negotiations for the planes due to be delivered between 2025 and 2027, said the people, asking not to be identified as the discussions are confidential. Bloomberg News first reported in January that Airbus SE was looking for A321 production slots that it could offer to United. 

Delays in certifying Boeing’s 737 Max 10 aircraft have jeopardized growth plans at United, which was slated to be the first major customer for the biggest 737 variant. Converting some of those orders to Airbus would give the European planemaker a rare opportunity to undercut its chief rival, which has been in crisis for more than two months following a near-catastrophic accident on a 737 Max 9 plane in early January.

United declined to comment Thursday on whether it was close to deals for the Airbus aircraft.

While securing more business with United would be a win for Airbus, the relatively small number of aircraft involved also highlights the limits to freeing up capacity in a hot market. Airbus and Boeing are sold out for years on their bestselling aircraft, and last year saw one of the largest order hauls for single-aisle jets as airlines rush to upgrade their fleets with fuel-efficient models.

Certification of the Max 10 keeps sliding as regulators more carefully scrutinize new Boeing aircraft entering the market. while the federal government is rigorously assessing the company’s quality control. Boeing has been ordered to cap production of its 737 jets, by far its most popular aircraft, as it works to get its production in order. Even before the Jan. 5 incident and subsequent heightened scrutiny, the 737 Max 10 was behind schedule.

United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said earlier this week that the carrier was in the market for A321s, but cautioned that he wouldn’t overpay for aircraft just to hit a growth target and would only do a deal “where the economics work.” The airline is likely to end up with a mix of Max 9s and A321s to replace the Max 10s, he said.

Kirby also disclosed that United has told Boeing to stop building Max 10s for its fleet and switch to the smaller Max 9 until the planemaker can secure federal certification for the 10. United has ordered 277 Max 10s, with options to buy 200 more.

“It’s impossible to say when the Max 10 is going to be certified,” he said. The carrier removed the plane from its fleet planning earlier this year. It is a major part of United’s strategy to shift to larger aircraft. 

Boeing had originally targeted beginning commercial flights for the Max 10 in 2020, but the plane’s certification has been pushed back indefinitely as Boeing addresses issues in its factory and contends with increased scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration and other US agencies. 

Kirby has been one of Boeing’s most outspoken critics after a fuselage panel blew off of a 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Air Group Inc. in early January. United, the biggest operator of the variant involved in the mishap, temporarily took dozens of planes out of service while federal investigators probed the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board has found that workers at Boeing had failed to affix four bolts holding a so-called door plug in place. 

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