China Southern says delivery timetable for Boeing 737 MAX jets not confirmed

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A child wearing a protective mask has her picture taken as a plane of China Southern Airlines lands at Beijing Capital International in Beijing as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, China, March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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BEIJING, May 17 (Reuters) - A China Southern Airlines (600029.SS) spokesperson said on Tuesday the delivery timetable for Boeing Co (BA.N) 737 MAX jets was not confirmed, after the company's chairman last week gave investors fleet plans through 2024 that did not include the MAX.

Rivals China Eastern (600115.SS) and Air China (601111.SS) have refrained recently from providing a timetable but China Southern had done so in its annual report released in late March. It predicted 39 MAX jets would be delivered this year, 37 next year and 27 in 2024.

China Southern Chairman Ma Xulun told investors in a presentation last week that excluding the MAX, the airline is expected to take the delivery of 30 aircraft in 2022, 36 next year and 12 in 2024, in line with the figures in the annual report.

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Bloomberg, based on Ma's comments, reported on Monday that the airline, Boeing's biggest Chinese customer, has removed more than 100 of the MAX jets from its fleet plans.

A Boeing spokeperson said on Tuesday: "We communicate regularly with all of our customers. Our delivery commitments and customer expectations have not changed."

Sources have previously told Reuters that slack demand has delayed the return of the MAX to Chinese skies, even though China's aviation regulator lifted a grounding order late last year.

China's domestic air traffic has plunged due to lockdowns in Shanghai and surrounding cities. Shanghai-based China Eastern said passenger numbers collapsed 90.7% in April year on year, while Shanghai International Airport (600009.SS) saw passenger numbers down 98.9% in the same period.

Boeing Chief Financial Officer Brian West said last week that Chinese airlines had conducted operational readiness flights and trained pilots in preparation for MAX deliveries before COVID-19 outbreaks led to a plunge in air traffic.

"So they were showing every indication that they want to get these back in the air," he said. "When it becomes more clear on what's happening with COVID protocols and restrictions, we expect that to just continue and then get the return to service and then we'll (be) allowed to deliver."

Boeing has more than 140 MAX jets in inventory that it has yet to deliver to Chinese customers. Its financial health hinges on the resumption of deliveries of 787 Dreamliners and clearing MAX inventories, company executives and analysts have said.

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Reporting by Stella Qiu in Beijing and Jamie Freed in Sydney, additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris; editing by Barbara Lewis and Jonathan Oatis

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