WestJet's multibillion-dollar Max 10 order from Boeing could face delays as aircraft awaits certification

The delays come on the heels of the high-profile Alaska Airlines incident, which has partly led United Airlines to plan for a future without the Boeing 737 Max 10

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WestJet’s multibillion-dollar aircraft order from Boeing could face lengthy delays, after a high-profile safety incident on a Boeing plane snarled the airplane’s certification process, an expert says.

The Calgary-based airline is currently awaiting more than 65 Boeing 737 Max 10 aircraft, set to arrive by 2028. But the plane has yet to receive final certification — following an early January incident in which the door plug blew off a Boeing 737 Max 9 on an Alaska Airlines flight — which has set back other airlines’ deliveries, leading one CEO to plan for a future without the plane.

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WestJet announced in 2022 it had increased its order of Max 10s to 65 aircraft, giving the deal a $7.76 billion final valuation.

But those planes can’t be delivered until they’re approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which said Jan. 24 that it would not grant any expansion in production for 737 Max planes until it completed an investigation into the Alaska Airlines incident that has increased scrutiny on Boeing’s manufacturing practices.

Gaping hole in the Boeing aircraft used for Alaska Airlines Flight 1282
A gaping hole is seen where the panelled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 in Portland, Ore., on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. Photo by National Transportation Safety Board via AP

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told CNBC on Jan. 23 the airline is considering fleet plans without the Max 10 due to ongoing controversy surrounding Boeing, calling the Alaska Airlines incident “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The U.S. carrier announced in 2018 it had ordered more than 100 Max 10s and initially expected them to arrive by 2020.

“We’re going to at least build a plan that doesn’t have the Max 10 in it,” Kirby said. In the best-case scenario, United will be five years behind its original delivery date, he said.

WestJet fleet planning ‘flexible’, says airline

Whether the Max 10 ever takes off remains a live question, said John Gradek, an aviation expert and lecturer at McGill University. WestJet’s 65-aircraft order would represent about 20 per cent of the airline’s fleet, he said.

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“I haven’t heard peep coming out of WestJet at all in terms of how (it’s) reacting to potential delays to the Max 10,” Gradek said.

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In a brief statement to Postmedia, WestJet said it had “flexibility” in its fleet planning. Representatives on Tuesday were unavailable for an interview.

“We continue to work closely with Boeing on all aspects of aircraft delivery and timelines. We believe our order book and fleet planning have the built in flexibility to support WestJet’s growth plans,” wrote Madison Kruger, media relations strategist at WestJet.

Meanwhile, the FAA said in a statement that it doesn’t comment on ongoing certification projects, and safety will determine the Max 10’s certification timeline.

New planes more fuel efficient

The Boeing Max 10 is up to 20 per cent more fuel efficient, meaning a delay would saddle WestJet with higher fuel costs for longer than intended, Gradek said, which could have an effect on its expansion plans.

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WestJet announced Jan. 23 it is leasing five new Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft starting in 2025, which Gradek said will likely replace some of its aging planes.

He said many of the Max 10s would likely replace some of WestJet’s 10- to 15-year-old aircraft, which are comparatively inefficient.

“You really want to get those new-generation airplanes in as quickly as you can in order to get some cost savings into your operating plan,” Gradek said, adding the newly leased planes likely came at a steep cost.

WestJet announced Monday its 2024 summer schedule, which included increased connections between Edmonton and U.S. cities, and a handful of flights connecting the East Coast to the U.K. Several sun destinations in Hawaii and Mexico were also extended to go through the summer.

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