Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Dies at 87

The wisecracking Herb Kelleher revolutionized air travel
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 3, 2019 7:06 PM CST
Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Dies at 87
Herb Kelleher   (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)

Not many CEOs dress up as Elvis Presley, settle a business dispute with an arm-wrestling contest, or go on TV wearing a paper bag over their head. Herb Kelleher did all those things. Along the way, the co-founder and longtime leader of Southwest Airlines also revolutionized air travel. Kelleher died on Thursday, the AP reports. He was 87. In the late 1960s, the nation's airlines were a clique of venerable companies that offered dining, movies and other amenities. Fares approved by federal regulators made air travel a luxury that few could afford. Kelleher was a lawyer in San Antonio when a client, Rollin King, came to him with the idea for a low-fare airline that would fly between San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. Kelleher guided Southwest through a thicket of legal obstacles thrown up by other airlines, and the new carrier began flying in 1971.

Southwest kept costs low. It flew just one kind of plane, the Boeing 737, to make maintenance simpler and cheaper. It gave out peanuts instead of meals. There were no assigned seats. It operated from less-congested secondary airports to avoid money-burning delays. Southwest turned a profit in 1973 and hasn't suffered a money-losing year since—a streak unmatched in the US airline business. Kelleher became Southwest's chairman in 1978 and CEO in 1982. Today, Southwest carries more passengers within the US than any airline. If Southwest was different, so was its garrulous CEO—a wisecracking chain smoker who bragged about his fondness for Wild Turkey bourbon. In 2001, Kelleher stepped down as CEO and president, and he retired as chairman in 2008. Even after leaving, he remained on the payroll and went to the office regularly.

(More obituary stories.)

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