Southwest Airlines and the Industry Mourn Loss of Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines

People at Southwest Airlines knew Herb Kelleher by a number of titles during his years as president, CEO and executive chairman: founder, inspiration, chairman emeritus and friend. When Kelleher died Thursday at age 87, Southwest Airlines posted on social media beneath a photo of a saluting Kelleher, "We already miss you, Herbie. #HonoringHerb."

Herb and his client/partner Rollin King incorporated Air Southwest, Inc. in 1967 to offer low-fare, intra-Texas airline service. Southwest Airlines grew into an industry giant with 58,000 employees and the largest Boeing 737 fleet in the world – 742 – operated on some 4,000 daily departures. Herb served as Southwest Airlines executive chairman from March 1978 to May 2008 and as president and CEO from September 1981 to June 2001.

From day one, Kelleher ran Southwest using a number of simple business strategies including one considered outrageous to this day, that keeping the airline’s employees happy should be the carrier’s primary focus. Happy employees, Kelleher believed, would translate into happy customers and eventually happy shareholders, a philosophy that proved to be true under his guidance. Shareholders came to appreciate that in 48 years of operation, Southwest Airlines never failed to deliver a dividend.

Kelleher focused on keeping fares low and making it clear up front to passengers that the airline didn’t offer frills along the way, except for peanuts. Southwest operated a single aircraft type, the 737, to keep maintenance and training costs in line. Another airline, Ryanair in Ireland, successfully copied the Southwest model. Kelleher and King also decided success demanded avoiding operations at congested major airports like Chicago O’Hare, Boston Logan or Miami International, opting for secondary locations like Chicago Midway, Fort Lauderdale and Manchester, New Hampshire.

Most of all, Kelleher was known for a personal trait normally missing from most executives in the aviation industry, a sense of humor displayed early on when he found a roll for himself in the airline's early advertising.

Herb really was the kind of executive people wanted to have a drink with. Rob Mark

Kelleher’s management style was best explained in a post last week on Southwest’s blog by Linda Rutherford, the company’s senior vice president and chief communications officer.

“As we all know, Herb has played a very profound role in the life of President Emeritus Colleen Barrett. They have been a powerful pair since she became his legal secretary in 1967, and together they nurtured and groomed Southwest Airlines into one of the most admired Companies in the world. Colleen said: 'He always supported me and always treated me as his complete equal. His generosity and inclusion from the very beginning allowed me opportunities and experiences that have been my guiding lights.'"

When a copyright dispute arose between Southwest Airlines and Stevens Aviation CEO Kurt Herwald over which company had the right to use the marketing slogan "Just Plane Smart," the pair of CEOs recognized early on that litigation would be a waste of time and money. Instead, they decided to settle the matter with a public arm wrestling match. Priceonomics called the event, "utter chaos, utter cheesiness – everything one could hope for in a professional wrestling match." Some 4,500 people packed a Dallas sports facility to watch the PR stunt billed as a wrestling match.

The author's autographed copy of the book "Nuts!" Rob Mark

Priceonomics said, “Kelleher, a natural weirdo, reveled in the absurdity of the event. Clad in a bathrobe and flanked by a dozen pom-pomming cheerleaders, he emerged from his multi-colored bus to great fanfare.” Kelleher lost the battle, but good naturedly donated $10,000 to the Ronald McDonald House as his penalty. Communication professionals believe the airline garnered at least $6 million in positive publicity from the event.

"The CEOs' 1992 battle was perhaps the most unconventional way a major corporation has ever settled a legal dispute – but it taught us something more: sometimes it pays to conduct business with a sense of humor."

Southwest’s current CEO Gary Kelly said, “One of the greatest joys of my life has been working alongside Herb for more than 30 years. His stamp on the airline industry cannot be overstated. His vision for making air travel affordable for all revolutionized the industry, and you can still see that transformation taking place today. But his legacy extends far beyond our industry and far beyond the world of entrepreneurship. His true impact can only be accurately measured by the hearts and minds of the People who he inspired, motivated, and engaged on a daily basis. And that, I believe, cannot be measured or quantified—but it is to be admired and appreciated by all who have been fortunate enough to experience it. I consider myself blessed to be one of those people.”

Herb Kelleher is survived by his wife, Joan, three of their four children, many cherished grandchildren, and, of course, his pride and joy, the employees of Southwest Airlines. In the interest of full disclosure, this writer has been a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards member for decades.

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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