“Dear tiny Jesus,” Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights) is praying on the flat-screen on the fore bulkhead. At the conference table, Stephen Trimble from Flight is chatting up some Boeing flacks while the cabin crew lays out a sandwich spread and Bill Roggio downs his second Budweiser. I’m sitting cross-legged on a sofa, hooked up to the Boeing Business Jet’s wireless network and thinking of taking a nap on the queen-sized bed (pictured below) in the back –- but no, Mike Goldfarb from The Weekly Standard has already claimed it. It’s the first hour of a two-day Boeing junket to promote their KC-767 tanker, which is squaring off against the Northrop Grumman KC-30 for a $40-billion contract to provide 180 planes to the Air Force to begin replacing its 50-year-old KC-135 Stratotankers. The Air Force calls the contest KC-X, and it is their number one weapons-buying priority at a time when money is seriously short.
Some military news stories are the result of careful study of leaked internal documents. Some come from stomping around places like Iraq and Afghanistan in a helmet and body armor. And some stories are handed to you on silver platters. This is definitely the latter. Boeing is flying around a dozen bloggers out to Everett, Washington to schmooze with corporate big wigs and see the 767 assembly line. Food and transportation are covered. We bloggers pay only for one night in a moderately priced hotel.
Obviously, this is ethically treacherous terrain – but not so treacherous that I was willing to say no. Rather, I’m going to be totally up-front about all the perks … and try to be as aggressive as possible in my reporting. In other words, I’ll enjoy the boozy plane ride and the free chow, but when it comes time for Q&As with the Boeing brass, it’s all about export controls, pilfered technology and whether the KC-767 really is the best choice for the Air Force’s new tanker.
You see, it’s not for no reason that Boeing is courting the media. In 2001, the firm arranged to lease 100 KC-767s to the Air Force for more than $20 billion, but that deal fell apart when it come to light that Air Force weapons buyer Darleen Druyun accepted Boeing kickbacks in exchange for setting up the lease. It’s taken the past six years to sort out all the inquiries, reports, fines and jail sentences (nine months for Druyun), and now the Air Force is trying again to get new tankers. In October the Pentagon will choose between the 767 and the Northrop Grumman’s Airbus 330, and the race is tight.
The 767 is smaller -– an advantage on the ground –- but the Airbus hauls more fuel and can carry more cargo, too. The 767 is a popular airliner, but the Airbus is a younger design. Both tanker models have already been exported: the 767 to Japan and Italy and the A330 to Australia and the U.K. The A330 tankers aren’t in service yet, and the KC-767s for their part have been held up by certification problems, so neither firm can claim an advantage there. In the balance, Airbus seems to have the advantage, from my perspective.
With that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see if the various stories to come out of this junket favor Boeing or Airbus. For the record, the following media organizations are represented, so if you see tanker stories from them in coming days, know that they’re stories that were hand-delivered by Boeing:
The Weekly Standard
The Fourth Rail
Inside the Air Force
Update: NPR asked me to point out that they and some of the other media on this junket donated to charity an amount equal to the price of a flight from Washington, D.C. to Everett. They did this, they say, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, and because Boeing cannot accept payment for corporate flights.
(Spelling of Druyun’s name corrected)