Herb Kelleher Has Left the Building


I very rarely write obituaries when someone in the industry dies, and for Herb Kelleher, founder and long-time president of Southwest Airlines… I won’t make an exception. That’s not because I don’t want to wax poetic about all he did to completely upend the US airline industry in his (surprisingly-long) 87 years on Earth, but rather it’s because I think he’d be pretty damn pissed off about people making a huge fuss over him. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll just let this photo do the talking.

Looks like the bottle is finally empty. So long, Herb.

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18 comments on “Herb Kelleher Has Left the Building

  1. Kelleher’s impact on the US airline industry was truly profound. He brought market competition to an industry that truly needed it — and did it with his unique, larger-than-life persona. But what I find most interesting now is how much the airline industry has changed since Kelleher was in charge. Back then, Southwest looked like the future: they were a fierce competitor that “changed everything” when they entered a market. Now, not so much, and Southwest is respected, but not feared, but its competitors. Indeed, of all the major airlines flying in the USA, Southwest’s model seems the most uncertain: they are neither a global carrier, nor a truly low fare airline. Is being a good employer and offering a fair shake to consumers enough? Maybe — this is a hard one to call. I guess the future success of Herb’s airline will depend on how good its present and future leaders are. He certainly got them off to a fantastic start.

    1. exactly, iahphx.
      Legacy airlines can match Southwest’s fares and ultra low cost carriers can undercut them. Other carriers beat Southwest on every metric the DOT measures with WN’s best performance coming in the fewest customer complaints. Southwest actually does not do well at airports where it has to compete against airlines much larger than it -which is why when it built up Denver, it did it aggressively in the post 9/11 period when the legacy carriers (including United) were very vulnerable. Denver is the only legacy carrier hub (and single airport city) where Southwest carries more local passengers than the legacy carrier.

      Herb’s biggest contribution to the industry and to Southwest was endless litigation over Love Field that has limited competition in one of the largest US travel markets. Southwest and American have carved up N. Texas and tried to keep each other in boxes and out of each other’s way. While Southwest brought other secondary airports back to life and found a niche that other airlines weren’t interested in, Love Field is the most dominated large airport in the US by a single carrier with the least opportunity for competitors to grow.

      Dallas Love Field is the opposite of free and open competition and Herb Kelleher’s fingerprints are all over what that airport has become – as indicated by the street names in the area.

      Southwest and Herb Kelleher have done a lot of very good things but no one should mistake their model for success in the midst of a free and open market.

  2. Without Herb, not sure there even would have been an Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Herb’s Texas Triangle Service showed what could be done in the early 1970s. The difference between CAB-regulated airlines like Braniff and Southwest was so profound as to be absurd. Heck, without Herb, Love Field would have been a housing development that looks a lot like the development around what used to be Stapleton Airport in Denver.

    Herb saved Midway Airport in Chicago, after Midway Airlines bit the big one. Herb made secondary California airports like Burbank, Oakland and Ontario relevant. And, he blew American Airlines almost completely out of Nashville.

    Indeed, it was the Southwest example that led to people like Senator Kennedy and Alfred Kahn to pursue airline deregulation.

    Give Herb credit — he created the contemporary airline industry. No more crappy food, no more leg room, seats that even my canine would find cramped. That’s Herb’s legacy! Along with peanut fares.

    1. Right — Kelleher’s impact was profound. But what strikes me most here is that it feels a bit like ancient history. I guess things move fast in this business!

  3. Southwest may be in an interesting spot, but they’re the only airline in the US that can get away with publishing prices only one place, yet still be within a few percent of the largest airline in the world…without an international operation really worth mentioning. Interesting to see how an airline zigs when everyone else zags, whether it’s lack of <120 pax planes (well, lack of <140 now), lack of differentiated hard product on a single plane (though -800s and Max8s are more comfortable), insistence on multiple flights per day per station, open seating, no checked bag fees…the list goes on. To my knowledge, if Southwest is in a market, unless it's a focus city or hub for another airline, they're have the biggest market share with no exceptions. That says *something*.

    RIP, Herb.

    1. There are many non-hub/non-focus cities where Southwest is number 2, 3, or 4 based on local market origin and destination traffic.
      Just working up the east coast
      West Palm, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Richmond… Grand Rapids… Des Moines… many cities esp. East of the Mississippi.
      and also most of those cities are outside of the high frequency markets where WN’s model has succeeded the best and which were the backbone of the WN that Herb nurtured.

      It is also because of their model which you noted that WN now finds fewer and fewer cities to grow… they are pushing hard for Hawaii because it fits their model but there are not near as many potential new cities as there are opportunities to connect the dots between their current cities.

      In the case of Cincinnati, one of their higher profile recent new market additions, they had to close Dayton in order to make CVG work.

      WN made mass travel affordable for many and Kelleher translated that vision to a truly nationwide network as no other carrier has done since, but most of WN’s strategies can be and have been duplicated by other airlines esp. in regions outside of the western US where WN is not as strong.

      WN’s greatest distinctive that most carriers do not try to duplicate is the free first two bags but WN execs have said that there is a very good chance that they will lose passengers if they change their bag policy. Thus, their policies may not be as much about profit maximization as it is about maintaining a business model that people have grown accustomed to and to which they have developed loyalty.

  4. At least Herb gave the impression he actually cared about his customers. Right now, Southwest’s corporate culture still reflects Herb. The big three give the impression customers are just a nuisance to be milked for every last dime.

  5. There is an excellent podcast series, Business Wars, that details Herb’s ascent. Well worth a listen. The man will be missed.

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