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.

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.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

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.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best for earning alternative rewards for travel purchases
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
Apply for Credit One Bank Wander® Card
at Credit One Bank's secure site

Rewards

1 - 10X points
10XEarn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel partner site
5XEarn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
1XEarn 1x points on all other purchases

Intro offer

Earn 10,000 Bonus Points
Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel

Annual Fee

$95

Recommended Credit

Fair/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 revamped Wander Card from Credit One Bank earns cardmembers up to 10 points per dollar spent on eligible travel purchases. With no foreign transaction fees, the card is also great for international travel. However, points earned from this card can only be used at a fixed value, so it may not be the best option for those striving to get maximum value from their rewards.

Pros

  • This card has no foreign transaction fees and earns up to 10 points per dollar on travel purchases through the Credit One Bank travel partner site.

Cons

  • While cardholders can earn a significant amount of points on travel purchases, there isn't any way to redeem points from the Wander Card for maximum value (beyond 1 cent per point).
  • Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel
  • Earn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel site
  • Earn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
  • Earn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Redeem your reward points for statement credits, gift cards, merchandise, flights, hotels, and more
  • With $0 Fraud Liability, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Free Online Credit Score and Credit Report summary, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for Credit One Bank Wander® Card
at Credit One Bank's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for earning alternative rewards for travel purchases
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

10XEarn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel partner site
5XEarn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
1XEarn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel

    Earn 10,000 Bonus Points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • 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.

    Fair/Good

Why We Chose It

The revamped Wander Card from Credit One Bank earns cardmembers up to 10 points per dollar spent on eligible travel purchases. With no foreign transaction fees, the card is also great for international travel. However, points earned from this card can only be used at a fixed value, so it may not be the best option for those striving to get maximum value from their rewards.

Pros

  • This card has no foreign transaction fees and earns up to 10 points per dollar on travel purchases through the Credit One Bank travel partner site.

Cons

  • While cardholders can earn a significant amount of points on travel purchases, there isn't any way to redeem points from the Wander Card for maximum value (beyond 1 cent per point).
  • Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel
  • Earn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel site
  • Earn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
  • Earn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Redeem your reward points for statement credits, gift cards, merchandise, flights, hotels, and more
  • With $0 Fraud Liability, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Free Online Credit Score and Credit Report summary, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
  • See Rates & Fees