Boeing Corp. faced a business problem of gargantuan proportions. Every year, the Seattle aerospace giant ships a veritable mountain of technical manuals, parts lists, and other maintenance documents to its 600 airline customers--enough paper to make a stack 130,000 feet tall. Just printing and mailing costs run into millions of dollars a year. Then there's the millions of dollars that airlines spend to store and retrieve those documents, which are essential for keeping their fleets shipshape.
Boeing has harnessed the Internet to dramatically change that--and in the process, has established itself as a leader among customer-service innovators. Since May 6, Boeing has offered airlines a soup-to-nuts Web site, called myboeingfleet.com, that contains all the technical information they now get on paper, plus links to news sources and chat areas for discussing maintenance issues. It's the handiwork of Barbara Claitman, director of e-business for the commercial aviation division.
Boeing's project goes well beyond what other industrial companies have done. The flow of information can be two-way, allowing Boeing, for the first time, to keep tabs on changes made to airplanes after they leave its factories. All of this should add up to better recordkeeping. That, in turn, "could translate into better safety," says analyst James M. Higgins of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.
More than half of Boeing's customers have signed up, and two small startup carriers have decided to go completely paperless. "I loved it right out of the box," says Nathanael L. Earp, general manager for the Boeing 737 fleet at Delta Air Lines Inc. "It's a huge cost savings for us." Boeing may not be a dot-com yet, but it has come a long way from the days when its strongest suit was welding and riveting.