RIP Herb Kelleher, the Man Who Democratized Air Travel

The swashbuckling Southwest Airlines honcho is dead at 87.


||| Fortune

Herb Kelleher, the larger-than-life Southwest Airlines impresario who taught the world that air travel did not have to be the exclusive plaything of the rich, died yesterday at 87.

"Our basic thinking [was that] Southwest would democratize the skies," Kelleher told me in 2010. "Which we did. I mean, a couple of years ago 85 percent of [Americans] had flown at least one commercial flight as opposed to 15 percent in 1966."

Kelleher was not the founder of Southwest, but rather the founding lawyer—which came in handy, since the Texas-based upstarts spent five years in court before getting its first plane off the ground in 1971. Why so much litigation? Because back then, as in pretty much all the world, America's airline industry was a heavily regulated cartel, with the federal Civil Aeronautics Board effectively letting the country's four main incumbent airlines veto the routes, prices, and even existence of any would-be competitor. Southwest's investors blew through their $500,000 seed money in legal fees, so Kelleher legendarily vowed to pay out of his own pocket if they lost their appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. They won, and he became CEO.

"One of the [government's] fundamental purposes was to throttle competition," Kelleher told me. "Their thesis was that if a new airline was gonna take one passenger—one, that's what they said—one passenger away from an existing airline, it can't be certificated….The fact that the existing airlines had 90 percent of all the revenue passenger miles in 1938, and also had 90 percent of all the revenue passenger miles in 1978, at the time of deregulation, would give you somewhat of a hint."

In our book The Declaration of Independents, Nick Gillespie and I argue that many of the modern world's best developments came through the combined efforts of three types of people: the theoreticians, who provided intellectual frameworks and persuasion for allowing a good thing to flourish; the deregulators, politicians who got the government out of the way; and the practitioners, who used this marvelous freedom—oftentimes forcing the deregulators' hands—to democratize a technology, setting off a chain reaction of productivity, wealth, and happiness. Kelleher was emphatically a member of that latter category. As we wrote:

Southwest Airlines exists because Texas is big. Like the now-forgotten Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) in California, Southwest was not subject to all those onerous interstate regulations and could [after finally winning its in-state legal battles] fly multiple routes in a large and populous state. The two airlines served as a field experiment to test—and demolish—the federal government's half-century-old theory that the airline industry, in the absence of tight regulation, would jack up prices, abandon small-town routes, and hinder the development of the industry itself.

That demonstration project proved critical in the federal deregulation of the airline industry. Once allowed to escape the confines of Texas airspace, Kelleher's airline became the most profitable on the planet, showing the entire world the joys of being free to move about the country.

Southwest [ushered] five key innovations into a sclerotic air-travel industry that had changed little in a half century: (1) unheard-of speed in turning around airplanes for their next flight, (2) a preference for unloved regional airports, (3) variable pricing between flights on the same route, (4) getting out of the meal-serving business, and (5) a conscious puncturing of jet age cool with corny, down-home friendliness.

That combination—minus #5, depending on the airline—can now be found all over the world, though not nearly often enough in the United States, due to lingering government controls on ownership, airports, air traffic, and more.

Kelleher was an outspoken critic, and frequent legal opponent, of the governnment's ham-handed interventions into the industry, including being the only major airline CEO to come out against the post–9/11 bailout money. But for all his contributions to the deregulation story, and vast riches in business, he will likely be remembered just as much for being a swashbuckling, chain-smoking, only-in-America kind of entrepreneur who would settle legal claims with armwrestling contests and advertise air travel like this:

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  1. The only airline I fly (since Alaska doesn’t fly near me anymore).

  2. Modern American hero; RIP.

  3. This seems to imply that SouthWest got its start because it only had to defeat the Texas air regulators, not the federal ones, because it did not fly out of state.

    Is that for reals? Had the commerce clause somehow been revived for airline travel, for years after it had been discarded for wheat farmers?

    I can’t imagine that being the case today, nor even in 1978 for that matter.

    1. Well, PSA did fly only inside California, and made a mint. They used to fly between LA and San Francisco like a bus service. You could walk up, put down 49.00 and get on the next flight. They took off on time whether the plane was full or not. Because that plane had to be in SF for the flight south. If the plane filled up, they brought out another.
      But thank God the regulators stopped that kind of convenience.

    2. It was not a state regulation. it was a federal regulation. It was known as the “Wright Amendment”. It was an amendment tacked on to some appropriations act that said that planes flying out of the old Dallas Love Field could only fly to adjacent states. The State of Texas could have never gotten away with such a law without violating the commerce clause. It was passed because Wright represented the area where the new DFW airport was built and Wright didn’t want any competition from the old Love Field against the new airport.

      1. That does sound familiar, but it just changes the question — why Texas? It seems like California would have been a lot easier, like PSA showed, and without the extra Texas-special Wright Rule.

        1. Texas is bigger than California, and the population centers are a lot more spread out. In CA you’ve basically got metro San Francisco, metro LA, and metro SD, all along the coast.

          Texas has routes like Dallas to El Paso, Corpus Christi (or Harlingen) to Midland, Houston to Amarillo or Lubbock, etc.

          1. That too. Also, Southwest got most of the routes into San Antonion before San Antonio became a big tourist destination. When San Antonio became a big tourist destination in the 80s, Southwest made a fortune.

            1. Even with all the military people and their families traveling in and out, and with how much the city has grown, San Antonio remains one of the easiest airports to navigate. For such a huge city, it’s surprising how small the airport really is, yet it doesn’t feel like an overcrowded facility.

              1. Yes. and it is in a great location. You can get about anywhere in that city from the airport in less than 30 minutes.

          2. I wonder how the airport alternatives compare. SW always used cheaper alternatives whenever possible. SFO has San Jose and Oakland as alternatives. LAX has a bunch of alternatives. I think only San Diego has nothing else.

            I know nothing about Texas choices, other than the Love field fiasco.

            1. LUV uses the airports that you describe in CA (Riverside, Orange County, and Burbank in the case of alternatives to LAX) but those are not as convenient to the central city as Love and Hobby. San Antonio has the one airport, but as someone else in the thread commented it’s really a breeze for such a large city, plus it’s not far from downtown. All of the other cities they serve in Texas (Midland, El Paso, Corpus, Lubbock, etc) only have one choice but the airports are easy because the cities are small.

              The one exception in Texas may be Austin. Back when SW started Austin’s airport was a small one not far from UT and the government buildings downtown. But Austin outgrew it. Now they have a new airport built SE of town at the site of a former Air Force base. A little big and not really convenient to the business center(s), particularly in light of Austin’s traffic, which is fearsome.

              1. Hobby is much less convenient to the rest of Houston than Bush. The airport itself is easier to use though and flights are usually cheaper at Hobby so it’s a good alternative but I always flew out Bush whenever possible.

            2. I think only San Diego has nothing else.

              The Tijuana airport. There is a customers-only pedestrian bridge across the border directly to the airport. Super convenient and reasonable prices internationally. San Diego has held on to its too-small downtown airport and the burbs developed before an airport got in the mix and the military sure isn’t giving up Miramar, which would be the natural location for one. SAN is maxed out; TIJ is going to pick up future growth.

        2. Because the two largest cities in Texas had old airports that were willing to virtually give away access to their gates. Houston Hobby and Dallas Love Field were both replaced in the late 60s and early 70s by new and larger airports but didn’t shut down. So Southwest took advantage of that by buying up gate access at those old airports no one wanted at a very reduced rate. In addition, both Hobby and Love Field were closer to downtown Dallas and Houston than DFW or Houston International. The bread and butter of Southwest for years was running what amounted to an hourly bus service from downtown Houston to downtown Dallas. Back in the day, they didn’t even bother assigning you a flight. You just had a ticket for that day and could get on any flight going that day provided you checked in before it was full.

          1. And Love Field is far more preferable to fly into now than DFW. The hub-and-spoke system is a fucking bane that forces people to fly through sprawling shit hubs like OHare and Denver International, so whenever a major storm rolls through one of these hubs, it wreaks havoc throughout the entire system.

            1. Love Field is so good. It take 5 minutes to get out and has a Whataburger. Perfection.

              1. And none of that In-N-Out garbage.

              2. The last food I ate on my way out of Houston was a honey butter chicken biscuit. It will be the first food I eat when I get back in Nov. of 2020.

          2. That reminds of of Tokyo’s airports. When Narita opened up, they put all the international flights there and left Haneda for domestic flights only. Narita is way out in the middle of nowhere, prime farm land, and the eminent domain process pissed off a lot of people and dragged out the process for a long time. Haneda had subway connections, that’s how close it is to the city center.

            But to avoid friction between the two Chinas, they let Taiwan international flights still use Haneda instead of being cheek-by-jowl with mainland China airlines. Their business boomed because no one wanted to use Narita if they could avoid it.

            1. Hong Kong’s Kai Tak was the best.You could land, get through customs and immigration and be walking around in Kowloon in 10 minutes if you only had a carry-on.


    His real gift was having smoking hot stewardesses in groovy 70s sexy uniforms.

  5. Herb was one of a kind. As a Texan, I was fortunate enough to by chance be on several flights that he was on back in the ’80s. He’d come on the plane smoking and doing “stewardess inspections”, which I assume that he’d never get away with in the #metoo era. And then once we took off the flight attendants would announce “free drinks for everybody, compliments of Herb”.

    And the….unique way he settled a copyright infringement lawsuit in the early ’90s was creative and hilarious.

    1. Herb lived the kind of life that sadly is probably not possible in our new tolerent and conformist society.

  6. He’s the reason commercial air travelers no longer wear suits and act on airplanes like someone who wears a suit!

  7. I recently taught a grad school class and of all the cases Southwest made the biggest impression on the students. Kelleher was truly unique and walked his talk, and expected the same of everyone throughout the organization; and it worked and made SWA very successful. We will not likely see his kind again in our lifetimes.

    1. It was a great example of getting employees to buy into a brand and a culture. The people who worked at SW saw it and I suppose still do as something different and special and took pride in being a part of it.

  8. I used to fly SWA a lot-loved them and their free drink coupons. I remember the rear-facing seats too. Kelleher was great but as others have said, would not be tolerated in our hyper-PC world today with his fondness for tobacco, hot women, and telling the government to go fuck itself.

  9. “…tobacco, hot women, and telling the government to go fuck itself.”

    The unreconstructed troika.

  10. People are stupid. If told that sugary drinks used in excess are bad for your health, they won’t put two and two together and they will keep on chugging. It takes an infinitely smart politician to pass laws or increase taxes to save the stupid. Of course politicians run government schools that create stupid people, but I will save that for another Reason article.

  11. I was a young Texas entrepreneur, struggling to make my mark in business and politics when Southwest came on the scene. I was invited to fly to Dallas for a lavish announcement meeting at one of the swank hotels. Most of the members of the crowded flight were already movers and shakers so I was flattered to be among them, being served unlimited drinks by the “Luv” stewardesses in hot pants uniforms.

    Upon arriving in Dallas we got on a chartered bus for the trip to the party, once again being served unlimited drinks. At the hotel, we were among more movers and shakers from Houston and Dallas in the ballroom and met by more hotties in hot pants at a lavish buffet and open bar. More drinks.

    Finally Herb Kelleher took the stage and announced that his new airline was going to offer trips between any of the three major cities for $15 with free drinks and on an hourly commuter schedule. The general gossip in the meeting was to drink it up and hope he had enough jet fuel to fly us home in those weirdly colored and logoed 727s. Very few of us thought his dream would materialize, much less be the most successful airline startup in history.

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