ANALYSIS: Boeing Customers Making Their Concerns Loud And Clear

Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary.
Credit: Horacio_Villalobos-Corbis-Getty-Images

Irish businessman Michael O’Leary has never been one to mince his words. But when it comes to talking about Boeing, his words have become X-rated.

The Ryanair Group CEO—one of the largest purchasers of Boeing 737s—ended negotiations with Boeing for the 737 MAX 10 in September after the two sides could not agree on a price. As usual, O’Leary issued strong public statements on why he did not go along with Boeing’s pricing strategy, while Boeing issued a far shorter statement saying the manufacturer would “continue to be disciplined and make decisions that make sense for our customers and our company.”

In mid-May, however, the rhetoric from Ireland heated up to new levels, while Boeing stayed silent. O’Leary released a torrent of expletive-soaked statements after saying the ultra-LCC would have to cut some of its spring and summer schedules because MAXs from earlier orders that were originally set for delivery by the end of April had been delayed to the end of June.

“At the moment we think Boeing management is running around like headless chickens, not able to sell aircraft, and then even the aircraft they deliver, they’re not able to deliver them on time,” O’Leary fumed in a sentence that was rare for its lack of an expletive. 

He also questioned “what the hell their sales team has done in the last two years?” and added that “either the existing management needs to up its game, or they need to change the existing management, would be our view of life.” Much of his other remarks were unpublishable in this magazine.

Ryanair has almost 500 737s in service and more than 140 on order. The airline stuck with Boeing through the horrors of the MAX crashes, grounding and recertification. The aircraft that were delayed this year are whitetail MAXs that other airlines canceled in the aftermath of the fatal crashes. While O’Leary’s public thrashing was far from diplomatic, it’s difficult to see how Boeing can defend itself, so silence is probably the only option.

And O’Leary is not alone among airline and leasing company chiefs who are becoming increasingly frustrated—if not bewildered—at Boeing Commercial’s ongoing disarray. 

After Boeing announced in late April that it would delay the start of 777-9 deliveries from the end of 2023 to 2025, Emirates Airline president Tim Clark—an early supporter of the 777X program—said he was skeptical of the new date and pointed out that with the multiple delays, the 12 aircraft that Boeing has already built for Emirates will be seven years old by 2025. He said they would effectively be “second hand” for which a new price would be necessary. 

But the bad news in the April announcement went far beyond the 777X. Boeing is still working through 737 MAX and 787 production and certification issues that are affecting delivery schedules. The company delivered 28 MAXs in April, below its stated long-term target of clearing out an inventory of completed aircraft that stood at 320 at the end of March. 

To clear out its backlog of MAXs by the end of 2023, as the company has indicated it intends to do, Boeing must make monthly delivery totals equal to the running production rate plus 15 or 16 aircraft. So far, it has not hit that mark.

Of the 777X delay, Boeing president and CEO David Calhoun said, “Are we frustrated with the timing? You bet.”

But for many customers, Boeing’s frustration should not be their concern. More than ever as they emerge from a crippling pandemic, they want certainty and dependability from their key suppliers. 

Without it, they will delay new aircraft purchase decisions, cancel existing orders or demand new terms on those orders. 

And they want to focus on their own frustrations, not Boeing’s.

Air Lease Corp. executive chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy publicly acknowledged that he saw risk to the 777X program with each delay and said ALC had decided against buying the freighter version because there were “too many questions and delays.” 

Avolon CEO Domhnal Slattery said Boeing had “lost its way” and wondered aloud whether a change in leadership was needed.

But there are still big names staying loyal to Boeing and its products, including Alaska Airlines, International Airlines Group, Lufthansa and Southwest Airlines, which firmed or added to MAX orders in 2021. 

And the truth is that no airline or lessor wants to see an aircraft supplier monopoly emerge. Whether they prefer Airbus or Boeing aircraft, it’s in everyone’s interests to have a competitive market in which all competitors are strong.

It may be months or even years before Boeing wades out of its production, certification and cultural mess. For the most part, however, their customers can only lament—in some cases, publicly and with an abundance of frustrated, X-rated language.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.


Wake up BOEING! You have been a sleeping giant for the last 20 years and lost market shares to AIRBUS and other competitors.
Wake up and come back with a plan! Instead of moving BOEING HQ to Arlington, come back to Seattle, that’s were most of BOEING activities are taking place. Make sure BOEING’s presidents, all VP and high levels managers stay at least one hour a day on the shop floor and listen to engineers, pilots and shop floor workers. Remember also that BOEING make money because there are customers, who provide the money for paying the salaries of BOEING workforce. Salaries are not paid by Wall Street.
Wake up and realise that there is a huge quality control gap at BOEING Commercial AC, BOEING Space and BOEING Defense. The gap is now so big, that BOEING is not able to produce big numbers of commercial planes anymore. The KC46 has serious quality problems since years and still not fixed. The Starliner was years behind schedule with severe quality control issues. Therefore, work together with the FAA, Pentagon and NASA engineering representatives and come with real solutions.
Wake up BOEING and come with a real plan. A real plan address major issues and come with proposed solutions. Issues will not be fixed by moving to Arlington neither staying far away from engineering and production in Chicago. Therefore, dear BOEING’s managers roll up your sleeves and change the direction the company has been heading since the last 20 years and do it NOW. If not the future of BOEING will be like GM, CHRYSLER, US Steel, KODAK, IBM, POLAROID and other casualties.
The major airline customers of Boeing should contact Ronald Williams, who chairs the Boeing Governance & Public Policy Committee, which is in charge of senior management succession planning, to replace David Calhoun.
However Mr. Williams may be the problem. Mr. Williams greatest contribution to Boeing is that he provides valuable insight into health insurance and employee benefits best practices which is totally unrelated to succession planning at a major aerospace company.
When I joined Boeing the simple focus was on building the best quality and safest airplanes in the world. The word was that as long as you stuck with that the quarterly ups and downs of Wall Street would not matter much for the long run. It is time for the company to get back to that quality and safety trumps dollars and in fact of you do not have the first two you cannot have the dollars as we learned from the 737 MAX fiasco.
The Airline CEOs of the world can express their frustrations and suggestions for a Boeing turnaround to the Boeing Chairman of the Board Lawrence Kellner and Ronald Williams, Nomination Committee Chairman. Mr. David Calhoun at least in theory reports to Mr. Kellner. Mr. Williams would seem to be in charge of finding a replacement for Mr. Calhoun.

The Airline CEOs of the world can go around the Boeing bureaucracy and contact Mr. Kellner via Marriott International, where he is a director, and Mr. Williams via American Express Company, where he is a Director.