An Open Letter to Boeing

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Last week, The Boeing Company announced its decision to move its headquarters from Seattle, Wash., to Chicago, Ill. The company's decision comes as part of a series of changes designed to establish a

Dear Boeing Senior Management:

I was in Chicago when the news came that you had made the decision to move your offices there from Seattle. Having lived in Chicago, I thought I'd drop you a note because your decision concerns me and I think there are some things you might not know.

I've been proud of Boeing ever since I can remember. As a kid crazy about airplanes, Boeing was "aviation" and it was "America." No other company or country in the world came close to what Boeing was. Relatives had commanded Boeing airplanes in wartime and frequent travelers in the family told me that they only rode on Boeing airliners as they were the best. Later, my military and airline pilot friends said things such as "if it ain't Boeing, I ain't going."

I was proud that Boeing had made almost heroic decisions in developing airplanes that had been in the forefront of aviation: the DWCs that circled the world in the 1920s, the B-15 of the late 1930s and the B-17 and B-29 shortly thereafter, and then the swept-wing, four-engine jets. Lockheed didn't have your nerve or foresight; it tried a half step into the jet age with the Electra and fell fatally behind in the airline market, almost reviving itself with the technically superb L-1011 Tristar, but never quite coming back.

Douglas had owned the piston airline market until you had the guts to make the leap to pure jets with the 707. Douglas fought back with the DC-8, but bankrupted themselves, and then merged with and played second banana to the radically different corporate culture of McDonnell, creating a company so internally confused that its airplanes never were close to your offerings. The Diesel-9 series (even when marketing called it the MD) was always a step or two behind the 737 and McDonnell-Douglas' attempt at a widebody, the DC-10, out of the blocks years after your 747 and Lockheed's Tristar, was almost criminally bad. They were only able to sell the DC-10 because marketing can sometimes obscure facts — it took the lives of many passengers and crew before it was a usable airplane. The MD-11? What more can be said? Comedians use that poor excuse for an airplane as a one-liner.

You have decided to develop the sonic cruiser, another bold choice in which you recalled your successful history of selling speed. I'm confident you can do it; Cessna is already selling a jet that cruises long distances at .92 Mach — all you have to do is scale it up.

You were the best. No one could touch you. But, somehow, you started making strange decisions every once in a while. Did management get too far removed from reality? It seemed to begin with the competition from the Airbus series. When that upstart appeared I expected old, cool Boeing to simply blow the Airbus out of the sky. But you didn't. You started slipping. You had a period when you couldn't seem to make airplanes fast enough to meet the orders you had accepted. You acquired McDonnell-Douglas and insulted us when you had the gall to reuse one of your proud 700 series jetliner numbers, affixing 717 to that mediocre DC-9-90 series machine. The 717 was always your name for the magnificent flying tanker, the KC-135, because it was distinctly different from the 707. Then you alienated the core of why you had been so successful over the years, your engineers. They struck. Who had heard of such a thing? You tried to diversify into "e-commerce," but it was a disaster. I couldn't help but think that top management had moved too far away from what the company did well, building airplanes.

Because of the communication problems you had because you were in Seattle and some of your facilities were in other cities, you made the decision to move. Your first announcement of the move indicated that you weren't seriously doing your homework and were then going to make the final location decision in a hasty, superficial manner. Your selection of the three finalists was nutty to start with: Denver has had its day, it couldn't control its growth in any rational fashion and is fast becoming a poster child for gridlock and smog. Meanwhile, Dallas is a thriving architectural slum and the major multinationals that used to call Chicago home have gotten out (did anyone at HQ think to talk with folks such as Amoco or Sears and get an explanation why they fled the city? Good grief, Sears built the tallest building in the world in Chicago and even they moved to a suburb.)

Well, last week it came out that you are going to move to Chicago. The City of Chicago and the State of Illinois agreed to pay some $61 million in cash, tax credits and other inducements to get the 500 or so of you to move to the City of Broad Shoulders.

You will soon discover it isn't enough.

Sure Dallas only offered $25 million, and you looked at the numbers. But, you looked at them in the short term, something that seems to be symptomatic of the decisions you folks seem to be making lately. Did anyone happen to look at the staggeringly high level of corruption in Chicago city government? Where other U.S. cities are running surpluses, Chicago keeps increasing its city taxes and fees because of the kickbacks, payoffs and scams. Your employees will rapidly discover that every city construction project costs about 30 percent more than in other places because the contracts only go to Mayor Daley's pals, whether they are low bidder or not. You'll find that 20 inches of concrete for an expressway is really 15 inches, but you'll get to pay for 20 inches.

Well, whether you did your homework or not, you're committed to the move. And because I still have tremendous affection for Boeing, I'll give you a few hints to help you make the adjustment.

You chose office space just west of the Loop, and the city is paying a million bucks to buy out the lease of the current tenants. (Don't worry, the city will get it back.) When it's time for you to drive to O'Hare airport figure on about an hour and a half, a little less on good days. Figure on about an hour to Midway. When you ask how long it takes to get somewhere in Chicago, be prepared for the most common answer, "about an hour." It's usually correct. But, you're cool; you are getting a heliport. Did you happen to notice that the exact site of the heliport wasn't decided in the agreement you reached with the city? You really should have nailed that particular point down. Hizzoner Da Mayor (it's okay, that's not disrespectful, it's the traditional pronunciation in Chicago, just as you are noticing that your company is now pronounced "Boing") and his father, the late Richard J. Daley, never allowed heliports for corporate operators in downtown Chicago. After you move in, as you try to get that heliport built, you'll discover that the city official you are dealing with will have misplaced the paperwork or have been transferred or doesn't know anything about it. So, before you move, if you really want a heliport, get it built.

In the interim, there is an outstanding airport a 10-to-15-minute taxi ride from your office. It's called Meigs Field. It has a decent runway, a pretty good instrument approach and several helipads. I noticed that several of your employees flew in to Meigs on Thursday, announcement day. It is extremely convenient to downtown, isn't it? Well, your new friend, Da Mayor, is going to close it next spring. He's going to add to the thousands of acres of parkland along the lakefront. The conversion of the airport into a scenic bit of botanical park almost identical to one in a largely African-American section of the lakefront is being done so that white people can have one, too (but this one will be maintained a little better). It's roughly a $5 million project. However, Da Mayor has decided it will cost $39 million and he will be letting the contracts to his buddies in the construction business. It doesn't matter to him that Meigs is a convenient hub for flying to the downtown airports at some of the cities you need to visit such as Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis or Omaha. It doesn't matter to him that O'Hare and Midway will become even more crowded. It's just the way business works in Chicago. So, get that heliport quickly. You're going to need it so that you can rapidly get to one of the remaining Chicago airports, even if those are even more crowded.

You'll probably live in the suburbs, that's fine; you planned well as your offices are right close to the two biggest commuter train stations and the commuter train service is excellent. If you like blues music, you've come to the right place; even New Orleans can't match the music in Chicago. The downside is that the music doesn't really get cooking until about 11:30 or so at night, and the commuter trains quit running at midnight. Have a good limo company on call. You don't want to drive drunk on Chicago's expressways, the cops may not get you, but the mopes will. And, hey; Chicago ain't Seattle — keep some spare cash in your shoe and always have at least $20 for the mugger.

Oh, yes, this is important: Don't complain about Meigs being closed down. The major corporations in the city who did that rapidly discovered the power of the Daley administration: Suddenly nothing worked. They couldn't get any needed permits, city documents, anything. They were quietly told that any contracts they had with the city would be cancelled. When they shut up about Meigs, the system started working again. Pretty amazing, huh?

By the way, about the term "Windy City" ... did your intensive research reveal that the nickname does not refer to the weather? It came from the fight Chicago had with New York City over who was to host the Columbian Exposition of 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus showing up on this side of the Atlantic. Chicago politicians made a bunch of promises about how they could put it on perfectly. The New York papers referred to Chicago politicians as "windy" because the term then meant a braggart who could not deliver on his promises. Chicago got the nod for the 1892 Columbian Exposition. It did manage to put on a tremendous event. It even influenced our national culture (the term "Midway" still used in carnivals comes from it). However, they put it on a full year late. The Exposition didn't occur until 1893.

Chicago weather isn't any windier than many other U.S. cities. Its politicians still are.

Because you decided to move to a great transportation hub, I'll close with what happened as I was leaving on Friday the 11th. I could have airlined into Midway or O'Hare, but because it was cheaper and more convenient, I flew myself into Meigs Field (my business destination was not far from your new offices). As I left the Loop, the radio station playing in the cab reported that the drive time to O'Hare — once you got on the expressway, of course — was over an hour. To Midway it was about the same. It took all of 11 minutes to get to Meigs. On the way, I called Flight Service for my final weather briefing and learned that delays at O'Hare were running an hour and a half. At Meigs, once I called ready for takeoff, I was told there would be a delay for my instrument release. It lasted all of two minutes.

Meigs works. It's being closed. I used to live in Chicago. I moved. Several multi-national corporations used to base their headquarters in Chicago. They moved. Boeing, you're moving to Chicago. See why I'm worried about your future?

Say, as long as you're still in the honeymoon with Da Mayor, how about asking him to keep Meigs open?




Rick Durden