Herb Kelleher, legenday co-founder of Southwest Airlines, has passed away today at age 87.
Southwest Airlines was incorporated as Air Southwest Company by Rollin King and Herb Kelleher. Kelleher believed that by operating solely within the State of Texas an airline could avoid federal regulation — meaning they would be free to fly without Civil Aeronautics Board permission. It would also mean they wouldn’t have to charge the high fares mandated by the CAB.
King and Kelleher, together with banker John Parker, are said to have sketched out the idea for the airline on a napkin in a San Antonio restaurant.
The carrier spent four years tied up in court trying to get off the ground, with Kelleher eventually prevailing. They based at Dallas Love Field, which incumbent airlines had agreed to abandon for Dallas Fort-Worth. However Southwest Airlines hadn’t existed and hadn’t agreed.
Southwest would fly short hops between Texas cities, eventually pioneering the 10 minute turn when they had to give back one of their Boeing 737 aircraft due to financial difficulties yet wanted to maintain their existing schedule.
In 1976, two years before airline deregulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board was ‘experimenting with price competition’ and approved Frank Lorenzo’s Texas International Airlines to undercut Southwest’s intra-Texas pricing with “Peanuts Fares” since they let you fly for peanuts.
Southwest responded with a two tiered pricing structure, one fare matching Texas International’s $13 fares and one more expensive $26 fare (for business travelers whose employers were paying) that came with a free bottle of liquor. The airline became the biggest liquor distributor in the state of Texas. They served free alcohol on board until 1988.
The airline eliminated peanuts this year. While they were served as a snack, they once stood for how frugal the airline was: other airlines served meals while Southwest served just peanuts. Some Southwest executives felt they would need to increase their investment in inflight food. Kelleher shot that down, “Do you know what the difference in cost is between peanuts and Snickers?”
Peanuts at Southwest were once known as ‘Love Bites.’ Southwest launched at Dallas Love field. Their flight attendants wore pink hot pants (designed by founding airline President Lamar Muse’s first wife). Automated ticket machines were called “Quickies.” Today the airline’s New York Stock Exchange ticker symbol remains LUV.
Kelleher, with his love of Wild Turkey and his back slapping ways, engendered a culture of fun. And the airline’s origin story, fighting against the odds against bigger airlines, created a sense of purpose. Now Southwest Airlines is the largest carrier of domestic passengers in the U.S. but that culture largely survives.
Here is legendary American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall offering a tribute to Kelleher in song, after the Southwest Airlines co-founder retired and was being honored by the Wings Club for distinguished achievement.
The lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s My Way seem appropriate to the occasion — even more so sung by Crandall, stylized to honor Herb (“Regrets you’ve had a few, how ’bout Shamu that crazy airplane? You paint a whale from head to tail, how could they fail to call you insane?”).
Rest in peace, Herb, you’ve changed flying in America and left your mark on countless millions.