Boeing CEO tries to smooth over tensions with airline chiefs after saying a US carrier 'likely' to go bust

Key Points
  • Boeing's CEO has sought to smooth over tensions with airline customers in phone calls this week
  • Dave Calhoun had told the "TODAY" show that a U.S. airline is likely to go out of business as a result of the pandemic.
  • Airlines are reeling from the fallout of coronavirus, and have warned they will likely have to reduce headcount in the coming months.
Dave Calhoun, Chairman of Boeing
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun has spoken with some airline CEOs in recent days to try to smooth over tensions after he told NBC's "TODAY" show that a U.S. carrier will "likely" go out of business as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.

A high-ranking airline executive at United complained to Calhoun about the comment, according to people familiar with the matter. American's CEO, Doug Parker, was also upset about Calhoun's comment, a person familiar with the matter said.

When asked whether the pandemic, which has devastated air travel demand, would force a major U.S. airline out of business, Calhoun told the "TODAY" show in an interview that aired Tuesday, "I don't want to get too predictive on that subject, but yes, most likely."

Calhoun did not specify an airline and a Boeing spokesman told CNBC after the "TODAY" interview aired that he wasn't talking about any one carrier.

Boeing CEO: Some carriers will not survive the coronavirus crisis

U.S. airline executives said the industry is facing it's worst-ever crisis as the pandemic drives down travel demand and forces them to park thousands of jetliners and warn about potential job cuts.

Calhoun last month said he expects a recovery in traffic to take three years to get back to 2019 levels and he told "TODAY" that passenger traffic won't likely return to a quarter of normal levels by September. 

"Traffic levels will not be back to 100%. They won't even be back to 25%," Calhoun said in the interview. "Maybe by the end of the year we approach 50%. So there will definitely be adjustments that will be have to be made on the part of the airlines."

Calhoun's calls with airline executives aimed to put his comment on an airline going out of business into context about the challenges facing the industry in general, according to a person familiar with the matter.

"We've had long-standing personal relationships with the airlines and they're highly valued customers," a Boeing spokesman said. "We will all get through this current pandemic and be stronger in the end."

The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that some airline executives were upset about Calhoun's comments.