Skip to content

Southwest Airlines, which gave us everything from hot pants to 'Wanna Get Away' fares, turns 50 today

June 18, 2021
4 min read
southwest airlines plane
Southwest Airlines, which gave us everything from hot pants to 'Wanna Get Away' fares, turns 50 today
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

It was 50 years ago, June 18, 1971, that Southwest Airlines made its first flight. Departing Dallas Love Field (DAL) in a Boeing 737-200 bound for Houston Intercontinental (IAH), the passengers on board would have had little sense of how much the dinky little startup they were flying would change the airline industry.

Yet now, 50 years later, as Southwest and other airlines recover from the worst crisis in the history of commercial aviation, the impact of the once-upstart carrier is reflected every time we take to the air in the United States, regardless of the airline we're flying that day.

Southwest made its first flight after years of litigation from entrenched Texas carriers Braniff and Trans-Texas Airways, which tried countless legal maneuvers to stop the new airline from taking off, rightly worried of the threat that Southwest presented.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

That's because it was still the era of airline regulation, in which the federal government treated domestic air travel as a public utility and dictated what routes an airline was allowed to fly, and what prices it could charge. That meant that the primary way airlines could compete was by trying to outdo each other on product.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG's free new biweekly Aviation newsletter!

Southwest's founders, however — pilot and businessman Rollin King and Herb Kelleher, his lawyer — found a loophole, inspired by two small airlines in California. By operating entirely within Texas — and not crossing state lines — Southwest could avoid submitting to the Civil Aeronautics Board, allowing it to undercut the competition. And with low fares, the airline could target potential customers who were driving 250 miles between Houston and Dallas, or Dallas and San Antonio. Why drive five hours when you could afford to fly for 45 minutes?

The early years of Southwest were like the Wild West, far from the family-friendly persona the airline wears today. A motif of "love" could be found everywhere from the airport headquarters' name — Dallas Love Field — to the names of the ticket machines — "love machines" to the snacks on board — "love bites."

Then there was the sex appeal, with outgoing, personable flight attendants dressed in hot pants and go-go boots, and double-entendres wherever one looked. And that's not to mention the free-flowing whiskey on board.

In this photo from around 1972, flight attendants -- then referred to as "stewardesses" -- work on a Southwest Airlines flight. (Photo by Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images)

In 1978, the airline industry in the United States was deregulated, paving the way for new airlines to form allowing existing ones to expand. With changes, carriers could now compete directly on price.

Other options: 8 cool places you didn’t know you could fly on Southwest

For Southwest, which had built itself within Texas largely by offering cheap fares and managing quick turns and high utilization on their aircraft, a world of opportunity opened up. The airline quickly began to expand, and within the decade was flying to places like Tulsa, Oklahoma; Kansas City, Missouri; Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, Detroit and several cities in California.

In the years since, the airline industry has largely adopted practices crucial to Southwest's success, including competing on fare and better utilizing aircraft. Although Southwest's image has tamed, the low-cost, quirky mindset has inspired newcomers like JetBlue and Spirit, and the airline has become the biggest customer of the biggest American corporation's workhorse product: the Boeing 737. It also carries move domestic passengers than any other U.S. carrier, a symbol of how far Southwest has come from its start-up days 50 years ago. Today it's more known for its polished image and slick marketing campaigns, including the "Wanna Get Away" fare sale ads that have been running off-and-on since the late 1990s.

Now, as the airline industry recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest will mark celebrate its 50-year legacy with special events around its network. TPG will be on hand to cover it from the scene, so check back later today for more.

Herb Kelleher, then-Southwest Airlines chairman, is seen in a 2005 photo protesting the then-controversial the Wright Amendment restrictions in Dallas. (Photo by David Woo/Corbis via Getty Images)
Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

TPG featured card

Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 6X points
6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.

Intro offer

Earn 100,000 points75,000 points
Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

Annual Fee

$125

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent/Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best Marriott card for Business Owners
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees