RIP, Herb Kelleher

The airline industry lost a titan yesterday, with the passing of Southwest’s founder, Herb Kelleher. It would not be an exaggeration to state that, if there were a Mount Rushmore of modern aviation, he’d surely be on it. Herb was 87 (going on 18).

I only met Herb a few times at industry events, and didn’t get to spend as much time talking to him as I wanted to, but one thing stood out to me: When Herb was talking to you, you were the only person in the room. His eyes never wandered, and he never looked like he’d rather be somewhere else. He genuinely liked people, and he combined a self-deprecating sense of humor with an extraordinary brain that he never felt a need to advertise. His work did it for him.

Southwest Changes The World

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Southwest Airlines changed the world of aviation with its low-cost, low-fare strategy. Originally a concept on paper, Southwest Airlines faced competition from local players like Braniff, who had no interest in any competition. Limited by its inability to fly out of state, Southwest struggled, selling one of its original four planes to make payroll. Ironically, that was the best thing that could have happened to the young company. It forced the airline to be incredibly efficient, maintaining low costs by keeping its planes in the air through its famous “ten-minute turn times.” With the death of airline regulation in the late 70s, Southwest eventually began to fly outside of Texas.  And while The Wright Amendment initially restricted flights from its home, Dallas’s Love Field, to states contiguous to Texas, the rule began to fall apart over time, finally going away entirely in 2014.

The Face Of The Airline

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An arm wrestling match to settle a copyright claim. Herb lost, but everybody won.

But the airline could never have reached its current heights without Herb. The founder built the airline around its internal culture and how it treated people, with the mandate starting at the top. If you go to Southwest’s corporate offices, the first thing you notice is that their walls aren’t covered in expensive art work. Rather, you’ll see pictures of their employees. And their pets. Herb was known to pass out peanuts when he was on a plane. Many other airline CEOs would run screaming if they ever encountered a passenger. Pilots, often considered the prima donnas of the industry, didn’t get it any easier. I’ve heard stories of pilots being asked to sing in interviews, just to make sure that they fit Southwest’s off-beat culture. After all, the airline was led by a man who reveled in dressing up as Elvis, offered up whiskey in a marketing promotion and joked that he gave up his beloved Wild Turkey and cigarettes one month per year, choosing February, because it was the shortest.

Herb’s emphasis on culture paid off. After 9/11, when airlines had employees lined up to receive their layoff notices, Southwest had pilots who offered to work for free so that nobody had to lose their job (They eventually limited unpaid work to one week per person.). Contract negotiations are as tense as they are anywhere else, but despite the fact that the airline is one of the most heavily unionized in the country, it’s not a zero-sum game for anyone. In the end, everyone expects to come out happy.

The culture flows through to the airplanes. Flight attendants joke around with passengers and like to make funny announcements. In other words, Southwest customers can expect to be treated like humans, a characteristic that is sorely lacking at many of its competitors.

Southwest faces a number of challenges as we move forward, including ultra-low cost carriers and weakness in its technological capabilities, but Herb created an airline that was built to last. Wherever he is now, I hope that they have plenty of wild turkey and a designated smoking section. Of course, he’d ignore the “No Smoking” signs anyway, but nobody would care. It’s Herb, after all.



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