United Airlines faces a new setback in its bid to win back business customers as production snags hinder deliveries of Boeing jetliners outfitted with new luxury seats.
"Short delays" are affecting two 777-300ER aircraft with United’s Polaris luxury interiors (below), said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the airline.
United and the planemaker are working with French seatmaker Zodiac Aerospace to expedite shipments, said McCarthy and Doug Alder, a spokesman for Boeing.
The stumbles will slow United’s efforts to woo international travelers with a rebranding campaign centered on the Polaris cabins, which offer pod-style suites with Zodiac's lie-flat berths.
Zodiac, which agreed to be acquired by Safran SA, has also held back production of Airbus' marquee A350 with delays of seats and lavatories.
“It’s not just seatless in Seattle, it’s seatless in Toulouse,” said aviation consultant Robert Mann, referring to the planemakers’ manufacturing hubs and a Tom Hanks movie. "It’s a serious problem and it’s been building."
The damage of delays
Even delays of a month or two could hurt Chicago-based United if, after a year of marketing build-up, the airline misses a chance to deploy the brand-new Beoing 777s on high-profile routes to Asia during the peak summer travel season, Mann said by phone.
“You can only make the most money when you have a product in the market at the right time,” Mann said. “You are talking consequential damages.”
Boeing may have to park additional United planes if Zodiac can’t provide the complex seats on schedule.
For the Chicago-based manufacturer and Airbus, receiving lie-flat seats at the right time is crucial because the products can require extensive rewiring, ductwork changes and reinforced cabin floors.
When deliveries run late, planemakers may be forced to remove fittings such as galleys and lavatories so the berths can be installed.
It's the latest in a series of production stumbles for Plaisir, France-based Zodiac, which warned this month that fiscal 2017 operating profit would plunge 10 percent.
Delays also slowed deliveries of Boeing 787 Dreamliners to customers such as American Airlines Group Inc. over the past two years.
At United, Zodiac seats are being installed first on the 777-300ER fleet, then on the carrier’s 787-10 and Airbus A350-1000 jets. Existing 767-300 and 777-200 aircraft also will be retrofitted with the cabins.
“We’re not happy, period,” United Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz told investors at a JPMorgan Chase & Co. event this month. “But rather than just be unhappy, we’ve got people on site with the folks there to make sure that we can expedite and accelerate as much as we can.”
Zodiac on March 14 revealed bottlenecks at the Cwmbran, Wales, plant where the Polaris seats are manufactured, as well as problems at U.S. factories that make lavatories for Airbus.
The latest production meltdown prompted TCI Fund Management Ltd. to urge Paris-based Safran to abandon its acquisition of the seatmaker.
Zodiac declined to comment on United, a spokeswoman said Thursday. The company said in the March 14 statement that the snags in Wales were “generating significant disruptions and delays that are currently being addressed.”
The production issues plaguing Zodiac are “probably the worst that the seat-supplier sector has seen in a decade,” said Gary Weissel, managing officer with Tronos Aviation Consulting Inc.
The French company has lost market share and sales, and been sued by American for fouling up 787 deliveries – a cost typically borne by the carrier, not the planemaker.
Zodiac has struggled to integrate acquisitions and hire an adequate engineering force to design seats as expensive and complex as a luxury sports car.
“Most people don’t understand the complexity of the products, which must also meet rigorous safety and certification standards for federal aviation regulators,” Weissel said. “It’s a combination of engineering, design and artistry all coming together."