Herb Kelleher, Texas Business Legend Who Transformed Air Travel, Dies at 87

Herb Kelleher, the legendary Texas business executive who's sketch of his dream for a new type of airline, written on a cocktail napkin in a San Antonio restaurant has become part of American business lore, has died at the age of 87, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Keller was a San Antonio lawyer when he got his idea for something that was new for the late sixties, a low cost airline.

When Southwest Airlines made its first flight out of Dallas Love Field in 1971, airline travel would never be the same.  As CEO of Southwest for thirty years, Kelleher pioneered low fares, ticketless boarding, the use of one type of airplane, the then brand new 737 to reduce repair and maintenance costs, and perfected the 'hub and spoke' system used by all airlines today to keep planes flying for more of the day.

At the same time, Kelleher's endearing personality created what one employee called a 'cult of fun' at Southwest, which included flight attendants and pilots singing to passengers, and airline crews telling jokes as part of the FAA mandated in flight preparation speech.  Kelleher once settled a patent infringement lawsuit with an arm wrestling match, which he dubbed 'malice in Dallas.'

"Herb loved people," Gary Kelly, who succeeded Kelleher as Southwest CEO in 2001, said following Kelleher's death.  "He loved everybody.  He loved life.  And without a doubt he loved Southwest Airlines.   He had the biggest heart of anyone I ever met, and without a doubt, he loved him right back."

But founding Southwest as a 'new type of airline' was not popular at the time.  Kelleher had to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to even get permission to start what was then unknown, a low cost regional airline, which at first served only Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston, the famous triangle sketch on the cocktail napkin.  Kelleher once commented that the challenge from the established airlines energized his dream, joking that "Southwest Airlines would not be in existence today, had other carriers not been so rotten."

"I think you have to have that spark in your DNA, that you are a little bit of a risk taker, a little bit of a visionary," Kelleher said in a speech at Stanford University in 2005.

Hebert David Kelleher was born in hardscrabble Camden New Jersey on March 12, 1937.  He graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in English and got his law degree from New York University.

Moving to San Antonio to work as an attorney, it was in a conversation with client Rollin King and banker John Parker that Kelleher drew out a plan for an airline that would serve the 'Texas Triangle.'  

“Herb Kelleher was one of the greatest entrepreneurs  to ever take flight. He forever changed the airline business, made flying affordable for average Texans and had a heck of lot of fun doing it," Mayor Nirenberg said.  "The legend that the original  Southwest route was born on a napkin at the St. Anthony Hotel Bar may be apocryphal but it captures the bold exuberance that Kelleher brought to Southwest Airlines and the State of Texas.” 

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings agreed, calling Kelleher a the kind of 'business pioneer' who is seldom seen.

"He pioneered, understood what it meant to have a short flight, to compete against the car in Texas," Rawlings said.  "He understood the importance of promotion and marketing."

Analysts say when Southwest started flying, few Americans had ever been on an airplane.  That changed because of Southwest, which made airline travel a common occurrence and opened the door to airlines ranging from JetBlue to Alaska Air, which use techniques that Kelleher pioneered at Southwest.

"Herb Kelleher is arguably the most transformative figure and character in the history of modern aviation," Texas businessman T. Boone Pickets said.   "He was the epitome of the can-do entrepreneurial spirit."

IMAGE: GETTY

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