Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly says there is “no better 175-seat airplane” than the now-grounded Boeing 737 Max jet, despite critics who think the airline is too cozy with the manufacturer.
The Dallas-based carrier, which has the largest fleet of 737 Max jets with 34, has said it’s confident that mandated fixes to the planes will make them safe to fly again. The aircraft have been idled since March following crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.
In an interview Thursday, Kelly said he is disappointed with Boeing over the role it played in the faulty software that led to the two crashes.
“We are not defending Boeing,” he said. “But at the same time, we recognize there is a long, rich history at Boeing.”
Southwest Airlines has faced scrutiny over its close ties with Boeing after the 737 Max jets were grounded in March. The company said last week that it has lost at least $225 million so far this year from the sidelined aircraft.
The carrier has pulled 737 Max planes off its schedules until after the New Year and said it will need up to two months to put them back into service once they are allowed to fly again by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Southwest has been a close Boeing ally for decades because its entire fleet is made up of 737s. The crashes and scrutiny of Boeing puts Southwest in a tough position because it has already ordered 250 Max jets to bolster its future fleet, including ordering 40 more in April.
“Part of the tragedy is that that’s a great airplane,” Kelly said. “We are dedicated to this airplane.”
A lawsuit from consumers last month accused Southwest and Boeing of failing to disclose critical flaws in the 737 Max planes in order to sell tickets.
Kelly said during a call with investors and reporters last week that Southwest isn’t unconditionally committed to a 737-only fleet.
“The longer answer is, I think, it’s something that needs to be fully explored and debated and that’s not something we’re going to do in 90 days,” Kelly said last week. “As a practical matter, if we want to diversify the fleet, it would take us years.”
Kelly said Thursday that Southwest pilots never had any issues with loss of control on the Max line of jets during hundreds of flights. But the airline would be sympathetic to passengers that didn’t feel comfortable on 737 Max planes.
“There are some customers we’ll have to convince it’s safe to fly the Max 8,” he said.
Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said he is worried the company may be too committed to the 737 Max.
“Gary (Kelly) is betting the whole future of Southwest Airlines on the Max,” Weaks said.
Boeing hasn’t said when software fixes to the flawed Max jets will be ready, but expects FAA certification to unground the planes in the fourth quarter of this year.