Willful and Whimsical, Southwest’s Kelleher is Gone but Not Forgotten

January 4, 2019 / Share your comments...

Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, its chairmen emeritus and an undisputed member of the pantheon of airline titans, died on Thursday, January 3, at 87.

His sixties-era effort to establish a Texas-based airline in the decade before U.S. airline deregulation was an improbable effort.  Nevertheless, the carrier’s unusual business model and playful attitude both among employees and with passengers, transformed the industry so much, that four decades later, the increase in air connectivity in a community following the arrival of a low-cost carrier is often referred to as the “Southwest Effect.”

There are many reasons for the success of Kelleher’s baby, now America’s largest domestic airline. Two strike me as particularly noteworthy.

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath point out Kelleher’s laser focus attention to the airline’s identity as a low-fare carrier. It is a simple idea the Heath brothers write, “but it is sufficiently useful that it has guided the actions of Southwest employees.”

Long before “brand identity” would become a cultural phenomenon, long before companies could imagine removing the media middleman, Southwest was dispatching its brand of youthful, irreverent, economical travel directly to its intended customers. And even though travelers can often find lower priced tickets elsewhere, the Kelleher-inspired message continues to serve the airline well.

Kelleher, a New York University Law School grad was an attorney in San Antonio in the late sixties when a client, Rollin King broached the idea of starting an in-state airline. King was smart to include a lawyer in his plan, as challenges to the Air Southwest Company as it was originally named, would crop up at the state and federal level and last for decades.

In his obituary of Kelleher in today’s Dallas Morning News, writer Conor Shine dug up an old but still-illuminating quote from Kelleher that speaks to how his opponents inadvertently contributed to the behemoth that is Southwest today.

Herb Kelleher, Executive Chairman, Southwest Airlines.

“Southwest Airlines would not be in existence today had not the other carriers been so rotten, trying to sabotage us getting into business, and then trying to put us out of business once we got started.” Kelleher said in 1985. “They made me angry. That’s why Southwest is still alive. I’m not going to get beaten, and I’m not going to let anyone take advantage.”

That tenacity is one trait of the man Southwest and the airline industry mourns today. Though in his emotional farewell video posted on the airline’s website, Southwest chief Gary Kelly, who often channels Kelleher’s whimsical spirit, focuses on much more.

Gifted, brilliant, teacher and friend, Kelly recalls Kelleher always wanted to bring everyone in on the fun, concluding, “His stamp on the industry is unmatched and unparalleled.”

Photos of Kelleher, courtesy Southwest Airlines


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