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Southwest pilots union warns Boeing may be rushing 737 Max return

Regulators slam Boeing over 737 Max approval

Boeing may be rushing its troubled 737 Max back into service and Southwest Airlines should consider buying planes from another aircraft maker, the union president for Southwest Airlines' pilots said in a memo to his membership.

The letter comes as Southwest — Boeing's biggest 737 customer, with an all-737 fleet — delayed the estimated time it will again begin flying the grounded Max jets to March 2020.  

Boeing is raising the threat of shutting down its 737 Max assembly lines to pressure regulators into clearing the plane, which has been grounded worldwide since last March after two fatal crashes, Southwest's pilots union chief, Jon Weaks, said in the letter to his members. Weaks said letting the plane fly again soon would in turn would force airlines to resume making payments on their Max jets, which would help Boeing absorb some costs of getting the planes back in the air.

"Boeing will never, and should not ever, be given the benefit of the doubt again. The combination of arrogance, ignorance and greed should and will haunt Boeing for eternity," Weaks wrote. "I strongly concur with Southwest exploring obtaining a different and perhaps non-Boeing aircraft for the best interest of all our futures."

Dallas-based Southwest is Boeing's biggest customer for all models of the 737, including the Max version. Budget airlines like Southwest want one model of plane for their fleets because uniform part and service requirements can help keep purchase, training and maintenance costs low.

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But Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in interviews last month that the airline's board will evaluate "fleet strategy" — including whether to consider buying planes made by other manufacturers — next year as part of its regular reviews, echoing statements he had made in July.  Southwest has taken delivery of 34 Max models already and roughly 70 more are expected to be delivered next year, Kelly noted in October.

Europe's Airbus is Boeing's main rival and makes its own competing-sized aircraft lines, including the A320neo. A Southwest defection could hurt Boeing, but may also be impractical because Airbus has its own years-long backlog and airlines have already budgeted purchasing and flying the more efficient plane models. Southwest is negotiating compensation from Boeing, Kelly said in October.

The Max grounding cut Southwest's projected profit by $435 million for the first nine months of 2019, Southwest said in October. Boeing through September has accumulated a 747 Max tab of more than $9 billion, according to Bloomberg. The pilot's union is also suing Boeing for allegedly rushing to sell the Max in its early years, saying it was unsafe.

Boeing continues to produce the plane, though at a reduced rate of 42 a month, since the Max grounding. It plans to eventually increase that production. 

Airlines typically make what's called "progress payments," releasing funds as an aircraft moves down an assembly line and before delivery. Boeing has lost orders for about 200 Max planes as customers modify orders, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Southwest this month pushed the date it expects to fly the Max planes to March from February, according to a statement from the airline.

"We offer our apologies to our customers impacted by this change, and we thank them for their continued patience," the Southwest statement said.

Boeing airplanes are being pulled out of service due to cracks near the wing

Boeing said earlier this week it expects to resume Max deliveries in December and get Federal Aviation Administration approval in time for a new pilot training program in January.

"We look forward to working with pilots, flight attendants and our airline customers to re-earn their trust," Boeing spokesman  Peter P. Pedraza said in an e-mailed statement, echoing the company's comments earlier this week. "The Max will only be certified once regulators are completely satisfied that we have made all updates required and they determine the plane is safe to return to service."

In the meantime, Boeing is dealing with problems in other 737 models. In October, the FAA required inspections of some models of the Max's predecessor, the 737 NG, after Boeing reported cracks in a part called the "pickle fork," which aids in attaching the wings to the plane's fuselage. The cracks are being inspected, and some 50 planes were grounded for repair at the end of October, the Associated Press reported. 

 -- CBS News' Kris Van Cleave and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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