Boeing's discount jets

Customers can pick up flawed 'factory seconds' at bargain prices. Have you flown a 'blem' lately?

Phil Condit is no Cal Worthington "and his dog, Spot." But the Boeing CEO will make his own kind of sales deal if you're in the market for a nice jumbo jet with a nick or two. Renton and Everett assembly workers like to call them "Boeing Blems"—a kind of factory-seconds jetliner with minor imperfections. There are likely hundreds of such planes, from 737s to 777s, coming off the assembly line or already in service around the world. Though no further assembly is required (and batteries are included), such new but imperfect jetliners are sold at discount by Boeing due to production or delivery mistakes—an off-center hole drilled here, a misaligned panel there. The blemish is often cosmetic, such as a noticeable dent in the wing or merely the wrong color used on the flight deck, and Boeing officials and engineers insist blems are safe to fly.

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A few assembly workers say they'd rather not go up in one, however; to them, blems are jets that may have more serious flaws, possibly including loose or missing bolts which in the past have figured into some air disasters and have recently become an airworthiness issue again. You won't find planes with the wrong wing attached, since, contrary to a recent story in The Seattle Times, that's physically impossible according to Boeing engineers. But as post-merger Boeing continues to ramp up production, more blems are rolling off the line to satisfy customers' and stockholders' delivery demands, and, workers say, raising some concerns about airline safety.

Should commercial airline passengers be worried about flying in a blem? "They'd never know the difference," assures a Boeing engineer, not one to toe the company line. An airlines spokesperson who asked that he and his airline not be named agrees: "These are excellent planes. The quality assurance is excellent. The defects are minor." Still, little things mean a lot in a jet plane with 5 million or 6 million parts. The Federal Aviation Administration just last week announced it found several dozen production and wiring mistakes in a recent close-up inspection of some Boeing jets headed out the door. And following the Indonesia crash last year of a SilkAir 737 lacking 26 tail-section fasteners, an FAA review determined a number of similar fasteners were also missing or loose on several other Boeing jets, suggesting the company's quality assurance is hardly an exact science. (The small screws can be critical to flight: A 1991 crash of a non-Boeing Continental Express jet, killing 14, was due to 47 missing fasteners.) However, in an e-mail response, Boeing Commercial Airplane Group president Ron Woodard, who defines blems as planes with mostly cosmetic or other superficial flaws, insists they are safe to fly.

"It is 100 percent certain that we would not, nor would the FAA, ever allow an airplane that is anything but absolutely safe leave our factory. Nor can an airplane be delivered that does not reflect the drawing and certification requirements." Some airlines have their own inspectors eyeballing the step-by-step assembly process, and "no customer would ever accept an airplane that is in any way unsafe," he adds. "Cosmetic-type [price] issues are handled by negotiation with the customer, as was the impact of the delayed deliveries."

The precise number of blemished planes now flying the friendly skies is not known— or at least the company says it doesn't know. Woodard and other Boeing officials also won't discuss details of the blems cost-cutting negotiations.

"The information you're interested in is considered confidential between Boeing and its customers," says corporate spokesperson Yvonne Higgins. But a veteran Boeing engineer, asking anonymity, tells us how it works.

"Planes are put together by edge-margin engineering—precision to the nth degree," he says. "But say a hole drilled during a plane's assembly is off a centimeter or so. OK, that won't make it unsafe, but it's not precisely to spec. The company reports it or the customer's inspector sees it and passes it—if Boeing will knock something off the overall price of the plane. The company wants to do this rather than delay production. But one little off-center hole like that can cost the company $15,000. That's no big deal for a plane that sells for millions. Except, adding in other things, more bad drills, minor damage from workers moving around in those tight spaces—or say a plane gets damaged while it's being shipped or delivered—and a customer could get hundreds of thousands of dollars knocked off the price."

The prevention of such errors is a Herculean challenge. When assembling a 747, for example, 14,000 separate tasks must be completed in a few months, not counting the repeat of some jobs when an error is made (Boeing says a plane can be flagged with as many as 1,000 rejection slips before a jetliner passes company, customer, and FAA approval). Such assembly snags and delays are expected to cost the company $3 billion in lost revenue by the end of this year. Officials insist they are ironing out the line problems, although last week Boeing announced it would again be unable to fill a number of jet orders on time for commercial and government customers, including the planned delivery of Al Gore's new Air Force Two. But better delays than hurried assembly, says Boeing's Woodard. "Every airplane is thoroughly functional and flight-tested," he notes, and "every system and flight condition is checked."

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