The staff of Southwest Airlines will gather today in Dallas to celebrate the life of Herb Kelleher. The co-founder and longtime CEO died January 3rd at age 87. Kelleher helped build Southwest into a major player in the airline industry, but commentator Lee Cullum remembers the fight just to get the carrier off the ground.
Herb Kelleher always seemed to be everywhere at once, so it was no surprise to see him a few years ago at the Texas Business Hall of Fame dinner at the Anatole. He was, after all, a past recipient of this award and a much admired member of this prestigious community of titans. The surprise was when he tilted his towering frame in my direction and whispered in my ear, “You covered us when no one else would.”
He was talking about the lawsuits that stormed around Southwest Airlines when it was getting airborne in the late 1960s and early 1970s - the strenuous effort of Dallas and Fort Worth plus various competitor carriers to force a fledgling Southwest out of Love Field and into the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport, now DFW International.
At stake was the financial viability of the new airport, built under orders from the Civil Aeronautics Board after bruising negotiations between the two cities. Theirs was a shotgun alliance darkened by strong suspicion in Fort Worth that Dallas might pull a fast one at Love Field and undermine the new venture built at vast cost of scarce good will as well as resources.
Fort Worth need not have worried about that. Dallas City Hall understood with utmost clarity that the bonds sold to build DFW were underwritten by the airlines under contract to operate there, exclusively, in North Texas. What they didn’t anticipate was scrappy Southwest and its unstoppable founders, Herb Kelleher and Rollin King - two unknowns who had moved here from San Antonio and threatened to wreck the painful work of civic leaders and lawyers who never had contemplated a Black Swan event like Herb Kelleher, also a lawyer, with boundless imagination and startling staying power.
There was another irksome element: Braniff Airlines, now defunct, was determined that if Southwest stayed at Love, so would Braniff, unwilling to yield any lucrative territory. That’s where KERA came in, and a program called NewsRoom. While other journalistic organizations were concentrating heavily on the City Hall-Braniff axis, NewsRoom paid close attention to Southwest. That was, in part, because Rollin King and Herb Kelleher sat up much of the night, talking on the phone to anyone who called, including reporters. They were remarkably candid about the case, what was going on, and what wasn’t. Braniff only made public relations people available to the press, during business hours - and the company didn’t allow them to to know anything useful. So the winners in the media, our media anyway, over and over, were Kelleher and King, because they weren’t afraid to speak up and speak out. Nor were they afraid of being understood.
The Supreme Court ruled, finally, that if Love Field stayed open as an airport, which it certainly did, to private aviation, it could not bar Southwest from its runways. So Southwest flourished, and so did Love Field. And so did DFW. There were always those who realized quietly that North Texas has plenty of action for both airports. They simply couldn’t say so out loud, not in the tense atmosphere in which Southwest was born. But Herb Kelleher and Rollin King said so, out loud and often. And I’m proud that NewsRoom covered them, even late at night, as well as touched that Herb Kelleher would remember that, so many years after you easily could expect the enormous success he achieved to drown such recollections in a warm bath of self-congratulation. But that was never his style.
Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist and host of KERA TV’s “CEO”.