Boeing hoped 2024 would be the year it would significantly increase production of its popular Max jets. But less than a month into the year, the company is struggling to reassure airline customers that it will still be able to deliver on its promises.
That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration said on Wednesday that it would limit the plane maker’s output until it was confident in Boeing’s quality control practices. On Jan. 5, a panel blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 body shortly after takeoff, terrifying passengers on an Alaska Airlines flight and forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing at Portland International Airport in Oregon. Almost immediately, the F.A.A. grounded some Max 9s.
Since then, details have emerged about the jet’s production at Boeing’s facility in Renton, Wash., that have intensified scrutiny of the company’s quality control. Boeing workers opened and then reinstalled the panel about a month before the plane was delivered to Alaska Airlines.
The directive is another setback for Boeing, which had been planning to increase production of its Max plane series to more than 500 this year, from about 400 last year. It also planned to add another assembly line at a factory in Everett, Wash., a major Boeing production hub north of Seattle.
As part of the F.A.A.’s announcement on Wednesday, it also approved inspection and maintenance procedures for the Max 9. Airlines can return the jets to service once they have followed those instructions. United Airlines said on Thursday that it could resume flying some of those planes as soon as Friday.
The move is another potential blow to airlines. Even though demand for flights came roaring back after pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions eased, the airlines have not been able to take full advantage of that demand. The companies have not been able to buy enough planes or hire enough pilots, flight attendants and other workers they need to operate flights. A surge in the cost of jet fuel after Russia invaded Ukraine also hurt profits.
Many airline executives are now assessing how the F.A.A. order would affect plans for their fleets for the next decade — or longer.
When they were introduced, the narrow-body, fuel-efficient planes were supposed to help the manufacturer compete with Airbus, which has pulled way ahead of Boeing in sales. But the Max series has been plagued by mechanical and safety issues, including two crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed nearly 350 people and led to the grounding of the Max 8 for nearly two years.
In its Wednesday announcement, the F.A.A. did not say how quickly it would lift the pause on the production increase, instead giving Boeing conditions it must meet before doing so. It said it “won’t be back to business as usual for Boeing.”
“We will not agree to any request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approve additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved,” said Mike Whitaker, the agency’s administrator.
Boeing’s share price fell about 6 percent on Thursday and is down about 19 percent since Jan. 5.
In 2023, Boeing produced around 32 of its 737 planes per month on average, with plans to ramp up to 38 by the end of last year. It had aimed to further step up production to 42 per month in 2024, a year-over-year increase of more than 100 planes, and to about 50 per month in 2025. Before the Max 8 was grounded in 2019, Boeing had been producing 52 Max jets a month.
Many airlines said they welcomed the F.A.A.’s decision to keep a lid on Boeing’s production until regulators were convinced the company had improved quality and addressed safety concerns. But some airline executives also moved quickly to rejigger their fleet plans under the assumption that planes that they had been expecting would now come months or, in some cases, years later than they had expected them.
Alaska Airlines, which has a fleet of 231 Boeing 737 airplanes, was set to add 23 Max jets to its fleet in 2024 but said Thursday that it expected “many of those to get delayed.”
“We have the right number of aircraft to fly our current schedule and get our guests to where they want to go,” the company said in a statement. “We’re still working to understand the implications of the F.A.A.’s recently announced limitation of aircraft production at Boeing.”
Southwest Airlines, which was waiting on more than 500 Max jets as of October, said it would “reduce the number of Boeing 737 Max aircraft deliveries” it expected from the manufacturer and no longer expected any Max 7 jets, which the F.A.A. hasn’t certified yet, in 2024.
Still, some analysts said it was not clear just how much of an impact the F.A.A.’s order would have.
“It is possible that the F.A.A.’s restriction on the ramp is irrelevant — at least for the move to 42 — since investors had already begun to assume a longer time at 38 to drive stability and increased quality,” analysts at Deutsche Bank said in a research note on Thursday, referring to the number of 737 Max planes that Boeing makes in a month.
At least one airline was confident the disruptions wouldn’t hurt its orders from Boeing. Ryanair, the European low-cost airline, said in a statement that the manufacturer had “assured Ryanair that the grounding of the Max 9s and maintaining rather than increasing current monthly production will not further delay Ryanair deliveries” for summer 2024 and summer 2025.
While the F.A.A.’s decision to limit production doesn’t help, Boeing was also struggling to increase production for another reason — it and its suppliers have not been able to replace all the workers who were laid off, retired or quit during the pandemic. Finding new skilled workers has been hard, and it is taking longer to train them, said Christopher Raite, a senior analyst at Third Bridge, a research firm. “The labor base just isn’t there.”
Boeing has two models of Max planes in production, the Max 8 and Max 9, and two other versions, the Max 7 and Max 10, which are awaiting approval from the F.A.A. before any can be flown.
Even before the Jan. 5 incident on the Alaska Airlines Max 9, airlines were limited in how much they could grow by adding flights or routes. In April, the president of the International Air Transport Authority, Willie Walsh, said capacity would remain diminished until 2025 and possibly longer.
Jonnathan Handshoe, an airline analyst for CFRA Research, said Boeing’s safety and production struggles could worsen a precarious situation for the airlines.
Delays in new aircraft deliveries, Mr. Handshoe said, would mean airlines will spend more on fuel than they were expecting because they will be forced to use older, less fuel-efficient planes that they had hoped to scrap or sell. In addition to increased supply-chain issues, Mr. Handshoe said, new labor agreements grant pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and other workers big raises.
In recent weeks, some airline chiefs have taken the unusual step of publicly chastising Boeing for its safety failures and production delays. Hubert Horan, an aviation analyst, said airlines were trying to get a better deal from Boeing on large orders they had already placed.
“There are normally provisions in contracts like these for major penalties and cancellation if major problems prevent Boeing from fulfilling the contract,” Mr. Horan said. “In part, the recent public statements are part of the negotiation about final terms of penalties and discounts.”
On a call with analysts on Thursday, Alaska’s chief executive, Ben Minicucci, said the company’s partnership with Boeing was a key part of the carrier’s future. The company had 185 Max planes on order, and Mr. Minicucci noted that it had been happy with the Max until the latest incident.
But the weekslong grounding of Max 9 planes and the limit on Boeing’s production will hurt companies like Alaska. The company said it expected that the F.A.A.’s grounding alone would cost it $150 million — though it also expected to be “made whole” for that loss — and Mr. Minicucci had said in a recent interview that he was angry with Boeing for its safety and production failures.
“We’re going to hold Boeing’s feet to the fire to make sure we get good airplanes out of that factory,” Mr. Minicucci said.