Legendary Herb Kelleher dead at 87

Jan. 3, 2019, © Leeham News: The incomparable Herb Kelleher died today. He was 87.

Kelleher was a co-founder of Southwest Airlines, which rewrote airline service in the US and which became the forerunner of many, many low cost carriers across the globe.

Herb Kelleher, wrestling for the rights to an advertising tag line. The publicity stunt literally drew worldwide attention. Photo via Google images,.

When I lived in Dallas from 1985-1996, I interviewed Kelleher many times and on occasion would lunch with him “just because.”

What follows are memories about Herb I’ve written as part of my own unpublished memoirs (of a sort) about my lifetime in commercial aviation.

Legendary antics

Kelleher’s antics are legendary, as was his smoking and drinking. He was an open flirt with his female flight attendants and they loved him for it. He was an absolutely ruthless competitor, but his clownish approach to life overshadowed it. He could be deadly serious and totally irreverent.

I need not recount his many antics, his dressing like Elvis, his motorcycle riding or similar activities because they have been well covered and are well known.

There is one story in particular to tell. It’s about Malice in Dallas. (See here, one of six parts.)

Old, flabby Herb vs young, fit CEO

Southwest adopted a new advertising slogan called Just Plane Smart. A small fixed base operation called Stevens Aviation had a slogan called Plane Smart. Instead of suing over infringement, the story goes, Stevens’ CEO challenged Herb to an arm wrestling match for the rights to the name. Herb being Herb, the challenge was on.

Stevens’ CEO was a much younger man than Kelleher and fit to Herb’s paunch. The match would take place in the ring of a “professional” wrestling setting. Southwest’s PR department let it be known that Herb was diligently working out, bench-pressing fifths of Wild Turkey.

During the “training” period, I had an interview scheduled with Kelleher. Waiting for him in his office, Herb was running late from a training session. He arrived wearing a red baseball cap and a rumpled trench coat, looking for all the world like your classic flasher. It was so Herb.

The event, which is posted on YouTube in six parts, drew worldwide attention and media coverage. Even the BBC was there. An EMT ambulance stood by. Herb came bouncing out into center ring to meet Stevens, whose arm muscle bulged. After dancing around the ring, Herb settled down to arm wrestle. After three rounds of Tom Foolery, they got down to business. Herb lost. Milking the moment for all it was worth, Herb did media interviews on the stretcher before being trundled off in the ambulance.

Crosstown rivalry

Southwest, of course, was a thorn in the side of crosstown rival American Airlines and its CEO, the hard-charging Bob Crandall.

Crandall was known for his aggressive management and ruthless competitiveness. But this was only part of the picture.

Bitter business rivals, Herb Kelleher and Bob Crandall were in reality good friends. Photo via Google images.

Crandall has a wonderful sense of humor. His rivalry with Herb was strong and competitively aggressive. But Crandall clearly enjoyed the fun-loving Kelleher, who chain-smoked more than Crandall and who loved his Wild Turkey. Crandall’s largely unsuccessful battle at the time to quit smoking made the newspapers now and then. Herb couldn’t put a cigarette down.

On Southwest’s 25th Anniversary, the carrier through a huge party. Jay Leno did a stand-up and videos were shown of people congratulating Southwest. One was from Bob Crandall.

The scene opens with Kelleher in a smoke-filled room worth of a foggy night in London, and an overflowing ash tray of cigarettes. The phone rings and Kelleher listens for a moment.

“I said ‘no,’” Kelleher exclaimed, with some annoyance. He slammed down the phone.

The phone rings again.

“I told you, ‘no!’” Slam.

The phone rings again. Kelleher answers, listens and sighs.

“Oh, all right,” Kelleher sighs. He holds the phone over the smoldering cigarettes. The scene switches to Bob Crandall, holding the receiver of his phone to his nose and inhaling the smoke emanating from the phone.

Crandall also did a singing video for a tribute to Kelleher many years later. It’s just awful, but demonstrates Crandall’s ability to have fun and it is a tribute to his friendship with Herb.

Today’s airline industry is filled with bland CEOs who are no fun, really.

Ah, Herb, we miss you so.




13 Comments on “Legendary Herb Kelleher dead at 87

  1. Herb. You left a lasting impact on our industry. You are a legend.

  2. The Southwest ad at the link below stars the young fit Herb. May he rest in peace.


    The Southwest of today, unlike the Southwest of old, does connections, goes to congested airports, and does multiple boarding groups (as opposed to the airplane door is open, if you would like to fly away on it you have 10 minutes to get through the door, and if you are walking past an empty seat, why in the world are you walking past it instead of sitting down in it?), and flies 143 to 175 seat planes instead of 122 seat planes, so the 10 minute turn that the ad is promoting is sadly a thing of the past on Southwest, although regional jets that I fly on often come pretty close (one of few advantages of regional jets?).

    If the people who run airlines ran city bus services, how long would it take to board the bus at each stop? Service would be hub to hub with connections instead of through service along commonly travelled roads? Everyone would have to get off at each stop and then re-board even if they were their final destination was 2 or 3 stops down the route? Boarding would be in multiple groups, extra assistance, then military, followed by first class, diamond, gold and silver commuters, and finally steerage? Parking at bus stops would be so tight that buses could not move forward out of the stop but instead need to be backed out onto the street by a crew of three bus service people?

    To those who will say that city bus style operations are not possible with airliners, I remember flying between San Francisco and Houston as a graduate student in the 1990’s on Southwest via El Paso and San Antonio or some similar route without a plane change. At each stop, the door opened, the people getting off at the that stop got off, and those boarding at that stop got on, probably in about 10 minutes, then the door closed and the plane promptly taxied back out to the runway. Continental had many non-stops SF to Houston, but Southwest was a lot cheaper (no longer always the case) and all I could afford as a graduate student.

    • Coming up next month is the 100 yr anniversary of the first land based sustainable commercial flight . As airlines hadnt been invented they had to name it like a shipping company.
      Duetsche Luft Reederei . I hope it gets its own post ?

  3. As a former AMR employee I heard Herb took Crandall’s cigarette lighter when he found out Bob was trying to quit. What a character who will be missed.

  4. SWA were initially forced to only fly inside TX and with Aircrafts no bigger than 737’s by court order as to protect DFW. By chance this started Point to Point 737 traffic that grew by new cort permissions to expand its allowed traffic (DFW did fine by itself) and SWA noticed that Point to Point traffic with reliable 737’s and Quick turn around was sucessful. Herb was smart and did not change the setup just expanded it by fighting in the courts and some early staff understood they had to treat staff & passsangers nice and charge less than the majors.

  5. Very good post honoring a great man. As many know the airline business is cut throat, but Herb had the savy to see thru all that and make it work to the point today where many try to duplicate the model, but there always will only be one SWA. But the best part about Herb’s legacy, IMHO, is the people culture at the airline. I have had the pleasure of working with many SWA employee’s in my career and visited the M&E facility many times. It just amazed me how the culture was so friendly and everyone – everyone was nice and good to work with. In the M&E facility the hallway walls are covered with family photos and get togethers. SWA hiring mantra is hire for attitude, train for skill – so many companies today don’t follow that.
    RIP Herb and thank you for all you did to make the model such a success.

  6. They don’t make them like that anymore, good and bad, its a shame.

    • Of course they still make them like that. And in the same proportion. They are just rare, then and now.

      • Sorry, have to disagree. Different time, different place, different culture and testing of who and what you were and are.

        Not alwyas good, but ways of life are gone. Corporation squash that sort of thing.

        Now we have the likes of Zukerberg and his data sucking/leaking operation.

  7. RIP Herb well done for the public service you have created their is a song called cheep flights by fascinating Adia taking the Mick out of Rran air called cheep flights that I think you would have liked Scot can you please download and post it for Herb on your site thanks A380

  8. While Southwest did ‘change everything, it ceratinly got started by copying another ‘intrastate airline’ Pacific Southwest ( PSA) of California
    “The New York Times wrote in 1971 that Southwest Airlines President Lamar Muse, “says frankly—and repeatedly—that Southwest Airlines has been developed from its inception around the ideas that have proven to be successful for Pacific Southwest Airlines.” “We don’t mind being copycats of an operation like that,” referring to a visit he and other Southwest executives made to PSA as they assembled their operating plans. PSA welcomed them and even sold them flight and operations training. Muse later wrote that creating the operations manuals for his upstart airline was “primarily a cut and paste procedure” and it is said that “Southwest Airlines copied PSA so completely that you could almost call it a photocopy.”

    PSA is gone- merged into what became America West/US Airways and then American- while SWA went nation-wide and a bit beyond to become largest US carrier largely because of Herb and those that worked with him.

  9. I was a broker 35 years ago, and saw Herb on 60 minutes. I sent him a letter telling him that my clients and I were buying Southwest stick in our IRA’s so that we could retire on ‘LUV’. He sent a nice personal note back, wishing us well, and telling me that the entire Southwest family was hoping to do the same.

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