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Qatar Airways CEO and past Boeing critic backs planemaker's new head

KUWAIT (Reuters) - The chief executive of Qatar Airways and a past critic of Boeing managers welcomed on Wednesday this month’s change at the helm of the U.S. planemaker as it deals with the grounding of its 737 MAX model following two fatal crashes.

A Qatar Airways aircraft takes off at the aircraft builder's headquarters of Airbus in Colomiers near Toulouse, France, September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Files

Boeing appointed David Calhoun, a former General Electric GE.N executive who has been on the Boeing board since 2009, as chief executive and president. He replaced Dennis Muilenburg.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker, who heads one of the Middle East's largest carriers, is a major Boeing customer but has been critical of Boeing and its rival Airbus AIR.PA in the past. He once said Boeing was run by "bean counters and lawyers."

“I have huge confidence in the new management of Boeing and I have huge confidence in Mr Calhoun leading the company,” Baker said. “I am very glad Mr Muilenburg has gone.”

Boeing dropped Muilenburg as it became increasingly clear he was making little headway resolving a crisis over the 737 MAX that has cost the planemaker $9 billion, hurt suppliers and airlines, threatening to cut the pace of U.S. economic growth. The 737 MAX has been grounded since March after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that together killed 346 people.

Boeing’s development of the 777-9, a new version of its popular widebody jet, has been delayed as its attention is focused on recovering from the MAX crisis. Baker said his airline, a launch customer for the 777-9, expected to receive its first delivery of the model by mid-2021, which he said was later than originally planned.

“It is important to note that the delay is not because of any other reason other than the MAX,” Baker said. “The whole concentration of Boeing is now getting the MAX into the air.”

Baker said state-owned Qatar Airways would report a loss in the financial year ending on March 31, but expected to break even in the 2020/2021 financial year. The carrier hoped to be profitable in the financial year 2021/2022, he told reporters.

Baker said the Qatari carrier would continue to fly to Iran and had not lost any bookings during a spike in Middle East tensions, when a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general and Iran launched missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq in response.

A number of flights to Tehran were cancelled last week after the crash of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran, which Tehran later admitted it had shot down by mistake in the tense hours after its retaliatory missile attacks.

Many airlines use Iranian airspace, including Qatar Airways which is banned from flying over some Gulf Arab states because of a diplomatic row.

Reporting Alexander Cornwell; Additional reporting by Ahmed Hagagy; Editing by Edmund Blair