The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Legendary Southwest Co-Founder Herb Kelleher Dies at 87

Jan 4, 2019

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Herb Kelleher, best known as the co-founder of beloved US carrier Southwest Airlines, died Thursday at the age of 87.

Southwest Airlines broke the news via Twitter without offering additional details, referring to Kelleher as a “pioneer, maverick and innovator.” Indeed, Kelleher’s “Founding Father” legacy encompasses not only the beloved Texas-based airline but the low-fare aviation industry as a whole.

A lawyer who earned his JD from New York University, Kelleher originally moved to Texas planning to start a law firm or a business. Instead, Kelleher and one of his legal clients, Rollin King, ended up incorporating Air Southwest together in 1967. Legend has it that the two men actually conceptualized the lower fare, intra-Texas airline together, doodling a simple triangle connecting the original three markets — Dallas, San Antonio and Houston — on the back of a cocktail napkin.

While the founders later stated that the napkin anecdote was more “a hell of a good story” than straight facts, Kelleher’s impact was nothing short of the truth. Southwest Airlines launched its inaugural flight on June 18, 1971, ushering in a new era in commercial aviation. Today, Southwest transports more than 120 million travelers each year.

“He literally brought air travel to the masses on a scale that was unimaginable,” said aviation industry analyst Robert Mann. For decades, every time Southwest Airlines entered a new market, airfares would drop across the board — a phenomenon the Department of Transportation formally labeled “the Southwest Effect” in 1993 and which SmarterTravel said is still “alive and well” in 2017, based on recent data from the University of Virginia.

Kelleher “disrupt[ed] the airline industry by making flying both fun and affordable,” said Southwest employee Linda Rutherford in a blog post on the airline’s community forum. In addition to bringing down the cost of air travel, Kelleher played an integral part in shaping Southwest’s legendary brand and company culture, often highlighting the company’s “audacious commitment” to putting employees first, customers second and shareholders third.

“You have to treat your employees like customers,” Kelleher told Fortune magazine in 2001. “When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right.”

Southwest Airlines employs more than 58,000 people and has been profitable every year since 1973, just two years after its inaugural flight. Furthermore, the company never had a layoff, furlough or pay cut throughout Kelleher’s tenure, despite being among the most unionized airlines in the world. But despite helming one of the most successful airlines, Kelleher was no stuffy executive. A die-hard lover of Wild Turkey bourbon who could usually be found dangling a Kool cigarette from his mouth, Kelleher enjoyed infusing fun into mundane company meetings by dressing up as Elvis Presley or other iconic figures.

And when Southwest and another, smaller airline got in a kerfuffle over the advertising tagline “Just Plane Smart,” Kelleher proposed that he and the other CEO arm wrestle for the slogan instead of pursuing legal action. The other man won but was so taken with Kelleher’s approach to the situation that he conceded the tagline to Southwest after all.

In a follow-up tweet, Southwest stated, “Herb has been quoted as saying, ‘It is my practice to try to understand how valuable something is by trying to imagine myself without it.’ We now have to imagine ourselves without Herb.”

Featured photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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