The flight that put the Boeing Company on course for disaster lifted off a few hours after sunrise. It was good flying weather—temperatures in the mid-40s with a slight breeze out of the southeast—but oddly, no one knew where the 737 jetliner was headed. The crew had prepared three flight plans: one to Denver. One to Dallas. And one to Chicago.
In the plane’s trailing vortices was greater Seattle, where the company’s famed engineering culture had taken root; where the bulk of its 40,000-plus engineers lived and worked; indeed, where the jet itself had been assembled. But it was May 2001. And Boeing’s leaders, CEO Phil Condit and President Harry Stonecipher, had decided it was time to put some distance between themselves and the people actually making the company’s planes. How much distance? This flight—a PR stunt to end the two-month contest for Boeing’s new headquarters—would reveal the answer. Once the plane was airborne, Boeing announced it would be landing at Chicago’s Midway International Airport.
On the tarmac, Condit stepped out of the jet, made a brief speech, then boarded a helicopter for an aerial tour of Boeing’s new corporate home: the Morton Salt building, a skyscraper sitting just out of the Loop in downtown Chicago. Boeing’s top management plus staff—roughly 500 people in all—would work here. They could see the boats plying the Chicago River and the trains rumbling over it. Condit, an opera lover, would have an easy walk to the Lyric Opera building. But the nearest Boeing commercial-airplane assembly facility would be 1,700 miles away.