Another Boeing offshoot — jet delivery

There's no guarantee that the buyers who pick up their Boeing 787 in North Charleston will be treated to the plush, high-tech conference rooms and offices that are in place for customers in Everett, Wash.

Airlines have picked up their newly made Boeing passenger jets to the cadence of marching bands and the solemnity of prayer. But never to the smash of a champagne bottle.

David Palmer, a Boeing executive who has helped deliver the company's airplanes for 30 years, has seen it all.

"Almost anything you can think of has been done, but we certainly don't allow them to break a champagne bottle over the nose," Palmer said. "That's a composite part, and the champagne bottle would win."

For decades, the process of formally delivering each brand new Boeing jet has taken place near the company's manufacturing headquarters in Washington state.

But that will change in about two years when the aviation giant opens its second delivery center, this one in North Charleston, across the tarmac from a $750 million 787 Dreamliner assembly plant.

When it opens, the Lowcountry will have the distinction of being just one of only three places in the world (the other is in France) where wide-body jets are purchased and handed over to their new owners.

"That's a big deal in the airline industry," said Jack Ellenberg, a top official with the state Commerce Department. "It puts you on an elevated platform within the industry."

Steve Dykes, the Charleston County economic development director, agreed. He said the significance of formally turning over jets in North Charleston still is sinking in, noting that most of the attention has been on the 3,800 jobs the 787 assembly line is expected to create.

"We've all been focusing on the primary jobs and what that would mean," Dykes said. "But this is going to be fantastic as another element of the project."

Order up

The 787 has racked up 866 orders so far from 57 customers worldwide, making it the fastest-selling aircraft in history. After numerous delays, Japan's All Nippon Airlines is set to take delivery of the first model later this year.

Other buyers include such exotic-sounding carriers as Uzbekistan Airlines, Air Niugini of Papua New Guinea and Biman Airlines of Bangladesh.

The first South Carolina-made Dreamliner is expected to be ready for delivery in the first quarter of 2012. Boeing's North Charleston campus will produce three 787 airplanes a month, about half the rate of the Washington manufacturing plant when they both ramp up to a full production schedule.

Boeing said the two-week aircraft delivery process includes a battery of tests and inspections.

In the end, the plane must earn what is called a "certificate of airworthiness" from the Federal Aviation Authority for domestic carriers or from a similar foreign regulatory body in the case of overseas buyers.

The buyers must sign an endless stack of paperwork. In South Carolina they will have to pony up state sales tax, which tops out at $300, even for a jet that can cost $150 million or more.

Boeing officials were mum on what the North Charleston delivery center would look like. Design plans call for it to measure about 35,000 square feet.

In Everett, Wash., the company delivers each airplane out of a sleek office building that sits on the edge of Paine Field. The modern structure, remodeled four years ago, features a slanted glass facade and second-story observation deck.

Strike up the band

Dave Palmer, who helped deliver the last 707 jet and every Boeing model since, said each pick-up is unique. He noted that some carriers have brought high school bands to celebrate the occasion.

Others have packed the first flight full of their highest-achieving employees to reward them.

He's also watched spiritual figure heads conduct ceremonial blessings in the shadow of the towering aircraft.

At the other extreme, some airlines prefer to get right down to business, sending just a pair of pilots to pick up the plane without any commotion at all.

The formal ceremonies also can take a sovereign twist. Finances at smaller overseas airlines, for example, sometimes are intertwined with governments. In those cases, it's not uncommon for heads of state, ambassadors or other dignitaries to turn up for the first delivery.

Palmer said he's learned to cope with language barriers, odd cultural customs and unexpected hierarchical structures, "all the way down to understanding how to hand over your business card."

Dykes of Charleston County didn't dare put an estimate on the economic impact that visiting dignitaries could send through the Lowcountry tourism industry.

"They're going to be, in many cases, staying in the best hotels and eating in the best restaurants," he said.

As for Palmer, he'll be in North Charleston once the celebrations begin.

When he heard about Boeing's plans for a second delivery center, the born-and-raised Washington state resident said he jumped at the chance to move to South Carolina.

His new title is director of the Charleston flight line and delivery center for the aerospace giant.

"It's the opportunity of a lifetime," Palmer said.

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or kstech@postandcourier.com.