It all began on a napkin

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Herb Kelleher

In the 1960’s two people met together in Texas and scribbled down some notes on an airline service in the state. That airline became Southwest Airlines and those men, Rollin King and Herb Kelleher a founded what became the world wide model for low-cost airlines.

King might have raised the money and recruited he board but it was Kelleher who died yesterday that gave the airline its stamp, its personality and its success.

This cigar-chewing, cigarette- smoking,whisky drinking lawyer knew next to nothing about airline management and that might have been to his benefit, When he eventually started running the airline he brought a new ethos to the airline. It was fun, it was consumer-oriented and it delivered a no-frills flight but with the customer at the top of the tree.

Without Kelleher, low cost travel might never have developed to the size that it is. Both easyJet and Ryanair based their business plans on what Southwest has achieved in the US as have just about every low cost airline in the world.

Freddie Laker may have been the first man to perceive low cost fares but Skytrain was beset by strong competitor activity and opposition from the start which contributed to its early demise in the 1980’s. Kelleher concentrated on a US domestic market and flying from underutilised airports like Love Field in Dallas as opposed to Dallas/Fort Worth International. (which took over from Love Field as the main airport for the region.)

As remeembered on the airline’s website

Today, Southwest still has its headquarters at Love Field and to get to the airport you travel down Herb Kelleher Way to get there.

As a lawyer  -and a tough one to boot – Kelleher was an ideal man to fight all the legal cases that made life difficult in the early days. Without that legal expertise and stubbornness, Southwest might have been stillborn. As it was it flourished so that when Kelleher handed the airline over to his former assistant – Colleen Barrett – (who had been with him since almost the start) it had become the biggest carrier of domestic passengers in the USA.

What made the airline different was that sense of fun. It was an enjoyable airline to work for I was told on more than one occasion by employees. And it was fun to fly; you didn’t know quite what to expect. I have personally witnessed the cabin crew bringing a birthday cake down the aisle to a young traveller whilst the passengers sang “Happy birthday.”  I have heard countless stories about cabin crew doing other things like that and I have heard them sing the air safety briefing. If you think Air New Zealand have a monopoly on jokey safety briefings these days, it was Southwest that popularised the idea.

As for customer service they regularly pick up gongs and no wonder. Let me recount a story I have told to many people over the years. A good while ago, I bought a return ticket in the UK for a flight from Chicago-Midway to Indianapolis. About six months later I had to make the same flight again. Checking in to the airport at Indianapolis I was welcomed by name at the check-in desk and wished a good flight back to the UK. Surprised I asked her how she knew it was me and that I would be flying to the UK. She remarked that she had only seen the type of ticket I was on only once before and remembered it. That is personal customer service at its best. Yes it was a coincidence that she was working that day and also that I chose her queue to join but how often has that sort of thing happened to you?

Nine years ago I was on an airport shuttle bus and a captain from a Southwest flight was there was well. Passengers were asking him questions about the airline and listening to his replies. They weren’t berating him for poor service, pricing or presenting him with problems. They looked on this airline as an airline for them and one which respected passengers.

Today Southwest has 750 planes

I said earlier that Kelleher made an impact. None more so was this illustrated than by some of his antics. If you think that Richard Branson at Virgin is a publicist, he pales against Kelleher and I make no apologies for repeating a well-known stories about him.

Having a disagreement with a supplier about a slogan, Kelleher was challenged by the supplier to an arm wrestling match to resolve the matter. Dressed in shorts over a track suit and sporting a bandana and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the arm wrestling was of secondary importance to the fun of the occasion. Both companies benefitted from the huge publicity and even the BBC was there in Texas to carry the event. You can catch the match on YouTube.

Kelleher was one of those few people respected by his staff and passengers and whose business concepts altered an entire industry. That is some legacy for others to try and emulate.

Images ©  Southwest Airlines Co

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