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The Love Field Legend dies: Herb Kelleher started Southwest Airlines on a cocktail napkin


Southwest Airlines tweeted: We already miss you, Herbie. We now have to imagine ourselves without Herb. The hashtag  was established.

Today Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines passed away. He was 87 years old. Herb started Southwest Airlines with a concept presented on a cocktail napkin in a Texas restaurant in San Antonio in 1971.

Herb Kelleher was born in Camden, New Jersey on March 12, 1931 and raised in Audubon, New Jersey, where he graduated from Haddon Heights High School. He had a bachelors degree from Wesleyan University where he was an Olin Scholar and where his major was English and his minor Philosophy, and a Juris Doctor from New York University where he was a Root-Tilden Scholar. At Wesleyan he was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He was married to the former Joan Negley and had four children.

Southwest Airlines was founded in 1971 after legal challenges from competitors who tried to keep it grounded — Southwest succeeded by a strategy of offering low fares to its passengers, eliminating unnecessary services, and avoiding the “hub-and-spoke” scheduling system used by other airlines in favor of building traffic in such secondary airports as Chicago-Midway (instead of Chicago-O’Hare) and Orange County.

Since becoming CEO of Southwest in 1982, Kelleher’s colorful personality created a corporate culture which made Southwest employees well known for taking themselves lightly—often singing in-flight announcements to the tune of popular theme songs—but their jobs seriously. How different the company culture is can be seen in an arm-wrestling event in March 1992. Shortly after Southwest started using the “Just Plane Smart” motto, Stevens Aviation, who had been using “Plane Smart” for their motto, threatened a trademark lawsuit, which was resolved between Herb Kelleher and Stevens Aviation CEO Kurt Herwald in an arm-wrestling match, now known as “Malice in Dallas”. Southwest is consistently named among the top five Most Admired Corporations in America in Fortune magazine’s annual poll. Fortune has also called him perhaps the best CEO in America. Kelleher was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2004.

On July 19, 2007, Southwest Airlines announced that Kelleher would step down from the role of Chairman and resign from the board of directors in May 2008, though he would remain a full-time employee for another five years. Kelleher ultimately stepped down as chairman on May 21, 2008. Immediately following, Southwest Airlines named current CEO, Gary C. Kelly the new Chairman of the Board of Directors.

I sat face 2 face with Herb & asked.. why don’t we have outlets in our seats? – my ONLY concern. He chuckled and explained that “We have never been known for our technology. We are known for being great people.” That he was and inspired us all to be..

Herb has been quoted as saying, “It is my practice to try to understand how valuable something is by trying to imagine myself without it.”

Delta Airlines tweeted: We are saddened to lose an industry legend. Herb Kelleher’s impact on aviation will live on forever.

Ashley Kelley tweeted: Sitting in his office in Dallas as a nervous 17 year old back in the late 90s interviewing for his scholarship has left a lasting impression to this day (and he awarded me the scholarship – first in our family to go to college).
The Ontario International Airport Authority in California released the following statement on the death of Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher. It should be attributed to Mark A. Thorpe, chief executive officer:

We mourn the death of Herb Kelleher, a loyal friend and early supporter of Ontario International Airport. A visionary who recognized the importance of the Inland Empire in Southern California aviation, Herb made the decision himself to bring Southwest to Ontario in 1985, establishing our airport as a viable enterprise in what was then a new frontier in our industry. He brought his low-cost approach to flying to Ontario at a time when commercial air service was out of reach of many Americans.

“Southwest has been our most significant airline partner since Herb made that decision, and we will always remember with profound gratitude his ability to see clear opportunities that others could not.

Herb Kelleher was a trusted friend of Ontario for more than three decades and we will forever hold his memory dear. We share the grief of the many employees of Southwest Airlines, present, and past, and mourn the passing of ‘The Love Field Legend.'”

Southwest Airlines founder Herbert D. Kelleher to receive Innovation Award at TravelCom’09

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About the author

Juergen T Steinmetz

Juergen Thomas Steinmetz has continuously worked in the travel and tourism industry since he was a teenager in Germany (1977).
He founded eTurboNews in 1999 as the first online newsletter for the global travel tourism industry.