Herb Kelleher death: Pioneering Southwest Airlines dies at 87.
Herb Kelleher moved to Texas in 1962 with plans for a career in law. Instead, his early legal battles on behalf of an upstart airline propelled him to the top of the aviation industry as he led Southwest Airlines in its fight to remake air travel with low fares and a fun-loving attitude.
Kelleher, the legendarily colorful co-founder and longtime executive who embodied the spirit of the Dallas-based airline, died Thursday. He was 87.
“His vision for making air travel affordable for all revolutionized the industry, and you can still see that transformation taking place today,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement. “His legacy extends far beyond our industry and far beyond the world of entrepreneurship. He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people — and, he kept us laughing all the way.”
Kelleher’s easy laugh and fierce competitiveness set the tone for the underdog Southwest as it grew from three planes serving three Texas cities in 1971. Today, Southwest is the country’s largest domestic airline, with service to about 100 destinations, and a 45-year stretch of profitability unrivaled in the famously volatile industry.
He dressed up as Elvis Presley, performed rap songs on training tapes and starred in self-deprecating TV commercials in which he missed his plane, tried to use an expired credit card and claimed credit for the company’s success to employees’ eye rolls. A chainsmoker with a penchant for Wild Turkey bourbon, he also joined employees in passing out peanuts or loading bags on flights.
“I think we will look back on Herb Kelleher as an example of the kind of people who ought to be our leaders,” former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall said Thursday night from his home in Florida. “He was a man of great imagination. He was a man of diligence. He paid careful attention to the details. And he was a man of integrity.”
Kelleher was also a formidable adversary, helping fend off attempts by larger airlines to squash Southwest even before its first flights.
As a San Antonio-based lawyer, Kelleher helped incorporate the company that would become Southwest in 1967 with his friend and client Rollin King. The early days involved a battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to allow Southwest to operate its intra-Texas network of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. That was shortly followed by a fight to keep Dallas Love Field open for Southwest operations even as other airlines relocated to the new DFW International Airport.
Kelleher became chairman of the company in 1978 and chief executive in 1981, as Southwest began its steady ascent in the recently deregulated airline industry.
“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.”