(Bloomberg) -- Airbus SE is seeking to persuade customers to return some aircraft delivery slots that it could then hand over to United Airlines Holdings Inc., going all out for the rare chance to snatch a marquee order away from embattled rival Boeing Co.

The European planemaker has inquired with jet leasing firms and airlines, proposing to buy back slots for Airbus’s popular A321neo single-aisle jet where it can over coming years, people familiar with the discussions said. United, for its part, is also exploring how it could potentially get out of its agreement with Boeing for hundreds of the long-delayed 737 Max 10 aircraft, one of the people said.

United and Airbus declined to comment. A Boeing representative referred a request for comment to Airbus.

If Airbus can pry loose enough capacity, it would seek to construct a proposal aimed at swaying United to switch away — even partially — from Boeing’s 737 Max 10, said the people, asking not to be named because the talks are private. They cautioned that there can be no certainty of a move, given the complexities involved in any switch.

Airbus would have to pay a premium to reclaim any sold-out A321neo jets, and securing enough planes in a severely tight market would be a complicated undertaking, meaning that any displacement of Boeing’s order would be a tough act to pull off. And United, once owned by aviation pioneer William Boeing, still buys its aircraft primarily from the US planemaker. The airline gave the Max 10 a critical endorsement as its launch customer, and has committed to buy 277 of what will be Boeing’s largest narrowbody, with options for 200 more. 

But winning over United, one of the world’s largest airlines, would mark a commercial and strategic triumph for the European planemaker and its top-selling narrowbody. United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby gave Airbus reason for optimism this week, saying the airline had started to review its options. While he wasn’t canceling the Max 10 order, United dropped it from fleet plans because Kirby could no longer count on the plane being ready. 

“We’ll be working on what that means exactly with Boeing,” Kirby said on a Jan. 23 conference call. “But Boeing is not going to be able to meet their contractual deliveries on at least many of those airplanes. And I’ll just leave it at that.”

Better Terms

It’s rare for an airline to cancel a plane order, and United could simply wind up with better terms from Boeing — a frequent outcome when manufacturers miss delivery deadlines. Contract terms usually ensure customers pay steep penalties for simply changing their minds.

Read More: Boeing Hit With More Pressure as United CEO Kirby Vents Ire (1)

Most airlines need new narrowbody aircraft, and wait lists at both planemakers stretch out for years, meaning the alternative is to join the back of the other manufacturer’s line. Airbus is practically sold out of A320-family delivery slots through the end of this decade. The A321neo, which typically seats between 180 and 240 passengers, has been particularly popular as airlines upgrade to bigger planes. 

The Max 10 can seat as many as 230 people. Boeing performed its maiden flight in mid-2021, after the 2019 grounding of the Max following two fatal crashes delayed certification. It was initially due to be delivered to United Airlines starting in 2020. United already operates A320-family jets, and has A321neos on order, giving it flexibility to carry out a potential switch from the Max 10.

The mid-flight blowout of a fuselage panel on a 737 Max 9 this month has triggered a crisis at Boeing, with regulators, lawmakers and customers scrutinizing the manufacturer’s quality controls. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded 171 Max 9s, forcing United — its biggest operator — to cancel hundreds of flights. This week, the regulator allowed airlines to return those planes to service following inspections.

“We have let down our airline customers and are deeply sorry for the significant disruption to them, their employees and their passengers,” Boeing’s commercial chief, Stan Deal, said in response to some of Kirby’s comments this week.

Quiet Accord

The impact could potentially ripple out to the yet-to-be certified Max 10. Kirby said he’s concerned that in the best case, the largest Max will arrive five years behind schedule in 2025, and the certification delays could extend further. The United CEO has vented frustrations with Boeing management and its response to the Jan. 5 accident on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282.

Read more: United Air Drops Largest Max From Plan After Boeing Missteps

Generally, failures on either side are worked out privately. Some airlines facing financial annihilation during the pandemic were able to cancel Boeing orders because a 2019 delivery halt tied to the global 737 Max grounding pushed handovers well past contractual deadlines. 

That was a rare occurrence, and it’s not clear yet whether the criticism of Boeing will lead to real opportunities for its chief rival. 

United’s repeated orders were crucial in helping Boeing re-establish the 737 Max in the marketplace in the aftermath of the global grounding. That includes the stretched Max 10, for which United holds about one-quarter of the current firm orders. 

With Boeing’s quality lapses in full view, there’s uncertainty about when, and maybe if, the 737 Max 10 and a smaller model, the Max 7, will be certified. 

On Thursday, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth urged the FAA to decline a Boeing request for a safety exemption on a feature of the Max 7, saying in a letter that “the FAA must reject its brazen request to cut corners in rushing yet another 737 MAX variant into service.”

Other customers have also voiced discontent. Alaska Air Group Inc. CEO Ben Minicucci told NBC that the airline will wait for the Max 10 to be certified and then evaluate “what the best long-term strategic plan is for Alaska’s fleet mix.”

Southwest Airlines Co., operator of an all-737 fleet, on Thursday said it no longer expects to receive the Max 7 this year as the smallest version of the jet also awaits certification.

“Boeing needs to get their act together,” American Airlines Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Robert Isom said on a Thursday conference call. “The issues they’ve been dealing with, and going back some years now, is unacceptable.”

--With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein and Ryan Beene.

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