Boeing’s 737 Max problem is the latest headache in its appetite for new planes

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

Lindsey Wasson | Reuters

Boeing’s warning that a manufacturing quality issue could delay deliveries of its best-selling 737 Max comes just before the peak season, another headache for airlines scrambling for new planes to handle a rebound in air travel.

The issue is related to multiple brackets in the rear of some 737 MAX aircraft, including the most popular model, the Max 8.

Boeing has 4,196 MAX aircraft on its website. Boeing disclosed the production problem on Thursday, but did not say how many planes were affected or how long deliveries might be delayed. The aircraft’s current delivery schedule stretches into the second half of the decade.

The fuselage supplier, Spirit Aerosystems, Boeing and the FAA said the problem does not affect flight safety. But troubleshooting can mean time-consuming extra work. The two brackets in question are on the inside of the plane, and according to a person familiar with the matter, getting a concern on the outside of the plane isn’t that easy.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun will comment on the issue at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday. Boeing disclosed the issue weeks after an executive said it was preparing to increase production of the jets from a rate of 31 per month.

Longer delays would be bad news for airlines already suffering from a global shortage of new planes. They could also affect Boeing’s plans to improve cash flow, as airlines pay the full cost of the aircraft upon delivery.

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“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a terribly invasive solution, but on the other hand, I think people are a little scared because of recent experience,” said Richard Aboulafia, managing director of Aerodynamics Advisory.

Southwest Airlines, which operates all Boeing 737s, said it was discussing the implications of the problem with the manufacturer.

“Boeing contacted us regarding an issue with a supplier’s manufacturing process affecting the delivery of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft 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 to fly about 90 Max planes this year, lowering its forecast from 100 “in light of recent discussions with Boeing and continued challenges in the supply chain.”

American Airlines also said it was looking into the problem with Boeing. According to its 2022 report, 88 MAX aircraft are on order.

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

United Airlines said Tuesday: “Boeing is making us aware of this issue, and we do not anticipate a significant impact on our capacity plans this summer or later in the year.”

The problem is the latest in a series of quality problems and flight delays at Boeing, including its 787 Dreamliner planes.

The global grounding and production suspension of the 737 Max follows two fatal crashes of the Max. After planes were allowed to fly again and production resumed, the pandemic disrupted the industry as it caused inflation and lost thousands of skilled workers.

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