(Bloomberg) -- United Airlines Holdings Inc. is in advanced talks to acquire additional Airbus SE A321neo aircraft as soon as next year, according to people familiar with the matter, allowing it to replace Boeing Co. 737 Max 10 orders that are at least five years behind schedule.

The US carrier is negotiating with aircraft lessors and the European planemaker to access production slots, the people said, asking not to be named with discussions still in flux. Some of the targeted slots have been freed up after JetBlue Airways Corp. and Spirit Airlines Inc. postponed A320-series deliveries, the people said, cautioning that details aren’t final and could change.

Securing extra Airbus planes would help United lessen the impact of delays at Boeing that have jeopardized the airline’s growth plans. The Max 10 won’t make its market debut until 2025, at the earliest, and is at risk of further delays since a fuselage panel blowout on Jan. 5 intensified regulatory scrutiny on Boeing. The uncertainty over the final and largest 737 model has frustrated customers including United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby, who has 277 of the aircraft on order with options for 200 more.

United, a launch customer for the Max 10, removed the model from its fleet plan in January. Kirby said then that Boeing “is not going to be able to meet their contractual deliveries” for many of the jets, though United hasn’t canceled any of the orders. Chief Financial Officer Michael Leskinen said this week that United plans to operate more A321 aircraft, along with Boeing’s smaller Max 9, and that the mix of those aircraft “depends on the prices.”

Representatives for United, Airbus and Boeing declined to comment.  

Losing even part of a major order from one of the world’s biggest airlines would be a setback for Boeing and its CEO, Dave Calhoun, that goes beyond the raw loss of sales. The companies share a history dating back to the early days of commercial flying, and a break would speak volumes about Kirby’s confidence in Boeing as it confronts its biggest crisis since the 2019 Max grounding that resulted from two deadly crashes. 

For Airbus, the opportunity to displace Max 10 orders is a rare one, as aircraft sales contracts are difficult to break under most circumstances. United’s position as launch customer for the Max 10 gives Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury even more incentive to shoehorn Kirby’s needs into the European planemaker’s schedule. 

Bloomberg News was first to report in January that Airbus was looking for A321 production slots to woo United. Boeing performed a maiden flight of the Max 10 in mid-2021, after the earlier Max grounding delayed its certification. The plane was initially due to be delivered to United starting in 2020.

Decisions in recent months by Spirit Airlines and JetBlue have created some daylight in Airbus’s crowded production schedule. In July, Spirit deferred some its 99 A320-series orders from 2024 to 2025 and later years, and stretched 2025-27 deliveries out through 2029, according to its annual 10K filing. JetBlue in January pushed about 25 A321 aircraft from the 2024-27 timeframe to later years, according to its regulatory filings.

One wrinkle presented by the potential switch is that United could end up with modern A321s powered by two different engines, the people said. The company, with 180 A321s on order, is using RTX Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney GTF engines. But it has to buy Leap engines from CFM International for the Max 10s — the only option available on the Boeing planes.

Airbus offers both the Pratt and CFM turbines on its A320-series, so United would likely transfer existing Max 10 engine orders with CFM, a General Electric Co.-Safran SA joint venture, to the new A321s, the people said.

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