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United asks pilots to take unpaid leave in May because of delivery delays at Boeing

United Airlines is asking pilots to take unpaid leave next month because of a shortage of new Boeing planes. Boeing has slowed deliveries of 737 Max jets because of manufacturing concerns.
Jason Redmond
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AFP via Getty Images
United Airlines is asking pilots to take unpaid leave next month because of a shortage of new Boeing planes. Boeing has slowed deliveries of 737 Max jets because of manufacturing concerns.

WASHINGTON — United Airlines is asking its pilots to take unpaid time off next month because the carrier is receiving fewer new planes from Boeing than it expected.

"We are offering our pilots voluntary programs for the month of May to reduce excess staffing," a United spokesperson said in a statement to NPR, attributing the decision to "recent delays in Boeing deliveries."

United says it won't have to cut flights.

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The effort to trim pilot staffing is the latest sign that production problems at Boeing and its suppliers are rippling through the aviation industry. The plane maker has been forced to reduce deliveries of its 737 Max jets after a door plug panel blew out in midair during an Alaska Airlines flight in January.

Federal investigators say four key bolts were missing when the plane left Boeing's factory last year.

Boeing says it's slowed production at its factory near Seattle to focus on quality and safety, as regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration push the company and its supplier for a plan to fix widespread manufacturing problems.

Federal regulators are investigating manufacturing problems at Boeing and its suppliers after a door plug panel blew out of a 737 Max in midair in January. Boeing says it's slowed production at its factory near Seattle to focus on quality and safety.
/ Jovelle Tamayo for NPR
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Jovelle Tamayo for NPR
Federal regulators are investigating manufacturing problems at Boeing and its suppliers after a door plug panel blew out of a 737 Max in midair in January. Boeing says it's slowed production at its factory near Seattle to focus on quality and safety.

The launch of the larger 737 Max 10 model has also been delayed indefinitely. United had been expecting to begin receiving those jets this year, but is now considering other options to replace them.

"Deliveries are going to be way behind what they expected," United CEO Scott Kirby said at an investor conference last month, confirming that the company has looked into buying additional planes from Boeing's rival, Airbus.

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Still, Kirby said he believes Boeing will be able to fix its manufacturing problems in the long run.

"As much as I would like those deliveries, you know, this is not a 12 month issue," Kirby said. "This is a two decade issue. And I'd rather Boeing do what they need to do."

Boeing announced last week that CEO Dave Calhoun will step down at the end of the year. The company declined to comment on United's effort to cut pilot staffing.

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Joel Rose
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.