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Herb Kelleher, The Colorful CEO Who Helped Southwest Airlines Soar, Dies At 87

The Associated Press
Rex C. Curry
In this photo taken June 10, 2011, Herb Kelleher, co-founder, Chairman Emeritus and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, poses for a portrait in his office in Dallas.

Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher, the colorful character who built an upstart Texas carrier into a high-flying powerhouse, died Thursday, the airline announced. He was 87.

» LISTEN | At 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, KERA 90.1 FM will re-air a conversation between Kelleher and Guy Raz on the NPR show “How I Built This.”

Kelleher, who ran Dallas-based Southwest for four decades, helped launch the Dallas-based airline in 1967.

That year, with a shoestring budget of $500,000, he filed an application with the Texas Aeronautics Commission for service at Dallas Love Field, George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and San Antonio International Airport.

He and co-founder Rollin King didn't get flights between those three airfields off the ground until 1971.

Not many CEOs dress up as Elvis Presley, settle a business dispute with an arm-wrestling contest, or go on TV wearing a paper bag over their head.

Herb Kelleher did all those things. Along the way, the co-founder and longtime leader of Southwest Airlines also revolutionized air travel by practically inventing the low-cost, low-fare airline

In the late 1960s, the nation's airlines were a clique of venerable companies that offered onboard dining, movies and other amenities to make flying pleasant but pricey. Fares approved by federal regulators made air travel a luxury that few could afford.

Kelleher was a lawyer in San Antonio in 1967 when a client, Rollin King, came to him with the idea for a low-fare airline that would fly between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Kelleher guided Southwest through a thicket of legal obstacles thrown up by other airlines, and the new carrier began flying in 1971.

Southwest kept costs low. It flew just one kind of plane, the Boeing 737, to make maintenance simpler and cheaper. It gave out peanuts instead of meals. There were no assigned seats. It operated from less-congested secondary airports to avoid money-burning delays.

Southwest turned a profit in 1973 and hasn't suffered a money-losing year since — a streak unmatched in the U.S. airline business.

Kelleher had various titles as the airline's outspoken leader. In 1999, at age 68, Kelleher was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He kept working, commuting between Southwest's Dallas headquarters and a hospital in Houston, but the incident added urgency for a succession plan.

In 2001, Kelleher stepped down as CEO and president, and he retired as chairman in 2008. Even after leaving, he remained on the payroll and went to the office regularly.

In September 2017, Kelleher was the subject of NPR's podcast "How I Built This." He talked with host Guy Raz about how how, in 1968, competitors sued to keep Kelleher's new airline grounded. It took three years in court before the first plane took off.

"We were the underdog," Kelleher told Raz. "It was sort of David versus the Goliaths — not just one but three of them."

Kelleher told Raz there were times he would work up to 100 a week. "People would say to me, 'why aren't you burned out?' I'd answer very simply, 'It's easy — when you have a passionate joy for what you're doing, you don't burn out.'"

Listen to the full episode:

• Related | Watch the KERACEOepisode with Southwest Airlines' Gary Kelly

Kelleher became Southwest's chairman in 1978 and CEO in 1982, as federal regulation of airline prices was disappearing. He led the company through its period of greatest growth. As Southwest entered new cities, it forced other airlines to match its lower prices. Federal officials dubbed this "the Southwest Effect."

Today, Southwest carries more passengers within the United States than any airline. While critics say Southwest has come to resemble the bigger carriers that it once fought against, it created a model of streamlined operations, low costs and lower fares that spawned similar airlines around the world.

If Southwest was different, so was its garrulous CEO — a wisecracking chain smoker who bragged about his fondness for Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey.

Kelleher was so outgoing that it would take him ages to walk through an airport — he seemed to stop every few feet to chat with employees and passengers. He had a booming laugh, a bottomless trove of anecdotes, and a lawyer's precise way with words.

Kelleher showed a flair for wacky marketing antics. When Braniff tried to drive Southwest out of business by undercutting its fares — prices that ensured both airlines would lose money — Kelleher offered a bottle of liquor to anyone who bought a full-fare Southwest ticket. Kelleher said that business travelers with expense accounts and a thirst for booze made Southwest the biggest liquor distributor in Texas for a time.

When Southwest and a smaller aviation company both claimed the same advertising slogan, Kelleher proposed to settle the dispute by holding an arm-wrestling contest with the other CEO. Kelleher, clenching a lit cigarette between his teeth, lost the match, but the victor — impressed by the publicity the stunt generated — let Southwest keep using the tagline.

As Southwest added service to more cities, executives of other airlines — and some of their passengers — dismissed Southwest as a cattle-car operation for cheap travelers. Kelleher answered with a TV commercial in which he wore a paper bag over his head and promised to give the bag to any customer who was too embarrassed to be seen flying on his discount airline.

The TV ads and the Elvis costumes helped make Kelleher the public face of Southwest and probably the most recognized person in the airline industry.

In a 2011 interview with The Associated Press, Kelleher said his proudest achievement was that Southwest — in an industry that cut tens of thousands of jobs in the decade after 2001 — never laid off workers.

In a statement Thursday, Southwest said, "Herb was a pioneer, a maverick, and an innovator. His vision revolutionized commercial aviation and democratized the skies."

T. Boone Pickens, the oilman and fellow legendary Texas business figure, tweeted, "Herb Kelleher is arguably the most transformative figure and character in the history of modern aviation. He is the epitome of the can-do entrepreneurial spirit."

Herbert D. Kelleher was born in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, and got his first job — for $2.50 a week — making sure that copies of the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper were delivered. He graduated from Wesleyan University and earned a law degree from New York University in 1956.

He's survived by this wife, Joan, three of their four children and many grandchildren. 

» RELATED | WatchKERA's CEO episode featuring Southwest Airlines' Gary Kelly

Anthony Cave reports gun culture as part of a new national reporting collaborative called Guns & America.