United pulls 737 Max until June, adding to Boeing woes

NEW YORK — United Airlines says the Boeing 737 Max has been pulled from its flight schedule until June, the latest in a string of troubling news plaguing the airplane manufacturer.

The developments follow Boeing’s announcement Monday that it would halt Max production in January as it became increasingly clear that it still has many regulatory hurdles to clear. It did not say when production would resume.

Also on Friday, Spirit AeroSystems, which builds fuselages for Boeing, said it will end deliveries intended for the Max as damage from the troubled plane begins to ripple outward to suppliers. Adding to the woes, Boeing’s new Starliner capsule went off course Friday during its first test flight. It was supposed to go to the International Space Station, but will not land there as planned.

Boeing and Spirit have the financial resources to manage through delays to the Max return, but smaller suppliers to both companies — who are attempting to hold onto skilled workers in a tight labour market — may not, said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft industry analyst at the Teal Group. If companies along the supply chain lose workers, it could slow progress when production eventually resumes.

“If they’re not building, how do they get paid? And if they don’t get paid, how do they pay their workers? How do they remain in place?” Aboulafia asked. “It’s this trickle-down effect that’s most concerning, and the biggest question is, you just don’t know how deep that goes.”

Airlines have already been dealing with delayed flight schedules tied to the Max, which was grounded worldwide in March after the second of two crashes of its jet, killing a combined total of 346 people. That has led to fewer available seats and higher prices. The grounding also has stopped airlines from adding routes and expanding, analysts say.

United said Friday that the airline expects to cancel thousands of flights in coming months as a result of the grounding. The company had previously planned to return the plane to its flight schedule in March. United currently has 14 Max-9 aircraft, but it was supposed to have 30 by this time.

United expects to cancel about 75 flights per day this month and 56 flights per day in January. The airline said it has been swapping aircraft and using spare planes to try to minimize disruptions.

Southwest Airlines, which was counting on the Max to update its fleet, has said it will add the plane back into its schedule in April. American Airlines announced the same expectation last week.

Southwest has been cancelling about 175 flights each weekday and is among the hardest hit by the Max grounding. The airline had 34 Max planes when they were grounded and expected more to be delivered this year.

The Federal Aviation Administration has not said exactly when the Max would return to the skies, but it has said the certification process would not be completed by the end of this month.

“The system seems to be hit with a touch of paralysis, and it’s all very strange,” Aboulafia said. Technical fixes to the Max should have taken just a couple of months, but political and regulatory pressure have contributed delays, he added. “Because of the pressure, they’ve gone over everything with a fine-tooth comb. Everything has to be investigated and gone over and over again and again.”

Spirit AeroSystems, based in Witchita, Kansas, said Friday that Boeing asked that deliveries be wound down by the end of the year. Revenue from 737 Max components account for more than half of Spirit’s total annual revenue. The company employs 13,500 people, and is the largest job provider in Kansas’ biggest city.

This week, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said that the state may have to help pay workers at a company if the planes don’t return to the sky soon. Shares of Boeing fell 1% while Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc. slid 0.5% Friday. United Airlines’ stock was up about 0.5% Friday.

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