Chain-smoking Kelleher changed the US airline industry

by Jerome Greer Chandler
January 08, 2019
Southwest Kellher
Aviation industry giant Herb Kelleher. Photo: Southwest.

The person who arguably did more than anyone else to mold the shape of commercial aviation in America over the past half-century is dead.

Southwest’s founder and Chairman Emetrius Herb Kelleher passed away January 3 aged 87.

Kelleher launched Southwest along with Rollin King on June 18, 1967, flying from Dallas Love Field, Houston Hobby and San Antonio International. The plan was sketched out on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Today, Southwest is the largest domestic airline in the US and flies to 99 destinations.

READ US pilots warn government shutdown is affecting safety.

When the chain-smoking Kelleher’s airline came to town to launch new flights, airfares overall plummeted and boardings soared. Such was the impact of the “The Southwest Effect”.

Many competitive carriers cut back on routes on which they found themselves flying against  Southwest.

Those airlines that fought the effect sometimes abandoned whole slices of the country. Such was the decision of US Air on routes stretching up and down the West Coast.

Kelleher believed in keeping things simple: no reserved seating, no first class, passenger boarding based on when you got in line (The latter practice has been tweaked significantly.)

People, not procedures, are the not-so-secret key to Southwest’s success. Prospective employees are vetted by their peers before being hired—thoroughly vetted. Perhaps they had noted that Fortune magazine considered Southwest one of the planet ‘s ten most admired companies and labeled Kelleher perhaps America’s Best CEO.

This reporter covered Kelleher for years. In Southwest’s fledgling years his nicotine-suffused office was in defunct Braniff offices at Dallas Love Field. On entry. he’d grasp your hand and say, ‘Call me Herb.’ This was no cliché. It was at the core of his belief system.

Southwest President Emeritus Colleen Barrett was a powerful participant in Kelleher’ vision. “He always supported me from the very beginning as his complete equal,”  he said.

That’s why during the lean years he would roll up his sleeves and head to Love Field’s baggage department to help sort and deliver suitcases.

Tributes to Kelleher have been rolling in from around the aviation industry and beyond.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, perhaps said it best: “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 the transformation taking place today…

“His true impact can only be measured by the hearts and minds of the People who he inspired, motivated or engaged on a daily basis.”