by Tim Hepher and Rajesh Kumar Singh

DUBLIN/CHICAGO (Reuters) – United Airlines has approached Airbus about buying more A321neo jets to fill the potential void left by the delayed Boeing 737 MAX 10, industry sources said.

United Chief Executive Scott Kirby recently traveled to Toulouse to probe the manufacturer about a possible deal after a mid-flight emergency on an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9 raised new doubts about the certification of the MAX 10, the sources said.

“United Airlines is in talks with Airbus about possible alternatives to ordering the MAX 10. To my knowledge, no agreement has been reached,” said a person familiar with the discussions.

Discussions are at an early stage and there is no guarantee of an agreement, the sources said.

Airbus and United Airlines declined to comment.

Scott Kirby’s previously unreported trip to Toulouse is the latest twist in a crisis involving Boeing, as the manufacturer seeks to reassure the public and regulators about the quality and safety of its production, while preventing key orders from being missed.

Scott Kirby last week called the partial grounding of the MAX 9 “the straw that broke the camel’s back” after delays in certification of the MAX 10, the largest plane in a class whose reputation was tarnished by two fatal accidents.

United has not canceled any of its 277 MAX 10s on order but has removed them from its internal plans, Scott Kirby told reporters.

Bloomberg News reported on Friday that Airbus was seeking to buy back A321neo positions in the market in order to be able to formulate a proposal in the event of an opening. Trade publication Air Insight reported that Airbus and United were in talks.

Signs of a potential deal with Airbus have raised “concerns” at Boeing, a senior industry source said. The manufacturer is currently unable to provide the clarity that United and others want on the MAX 10 due to doubts about its certification timeline.

Boeing, which has pledged to address quality issues that may have caused a MAX 9 door plug to explode and partially ground the plane, declined to comment on trade talks. .

Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Stan Deal said in a letter to staff Friday that he was “deeply sorry for the significant disruption and frustration to our customers.”

The talks come as Airbus controls the busiest part of the jet market, where its 240-seat A321neo has a strong lead over the upcoming MAX 10.

In contrast, Airbus failed to deliver a single one of its larger A350 jets to United after winning a sale as early as 2010, following a merger between United and longtime Boeing customer Continental Airlines, which triggered a review.

Orders were gradually postponed until around 2030.

According to industry sources, both sides have tentatively agreed that any deal for A321neo planes would return to the 45 A350s ordered by United and include at least a firmer delivery schedule after several postponements by the airline based in Chicago.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher and Rajesh Kumar Singh, with Valerie Insinna, writing by Jane Merriman, Benjamin Mallet)

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