Southwest Airlines this week announced that its founder and chairman emeritus, Herbert D. Kelleher, had passed away on Thursday at the age of 87.
Kelleher was born in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, in 1931. He attended Wesleyan before getting his law degree from New York University. After relocating to Texas with a plan to start his own law firm, Kelleher helped found Air Southwest Inc. in 1967 as an intra-Texas, low-fare airline.
Staying within Texas allowed Kelleher to avoid price controls and market regulations that enabled the airline to offer prices lower than other airlines within the state. After a three-year court battle with the competing airlines, Kelleher launched Southwest Airlines in 1971 with headquarters in Dallas. Southwest started passenger service on two routes: Dallas to Houston and Dallas to San Antonio.
“Anyone in the world who has set foot on an airplane in the past 50 years has been touched by the life of Herb Kelleher. For he, with the first set of Southwest Warriors, made history when they set out to disrupt the airline industry by making flying both fun and affordable,” Southwest wrote in a message mourning Kelleher this week.
Southwest expanded outside of Texas in 1979 when it flew its first scheduled flight from Houston to New Orleans. That was followed by service from Texas to Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque in 1980; and to Kansas City, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and California in 1982.
Kelleher served as CEO from March 1879 to May 2008 and as president from September 1981 to June 2001. He is seen as one of the icons of the airline industry and is credited with helping to change corporate culture — the satisfaction of its employees has long been seen as more important than the happiness of its customers.
"We believe that if we treat our employees right, they will treat our customers right, and in turn that results in increased business and profits that make everyone happy," the airline proclaims on its website. That culture has helped Southwest reach the success it celebrates today — according to Statista, Southwest is the world’s biggest airline by market value and the lowest in the U.S. when it comes to customer complaints (Southwest receives .47 complaints per 100,000 boardings).
In a statement, Southwest’s current CEO Gary Kelly said that working with Kelleher has been “one of the greatest joys of my life. 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.
“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.”