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What follows are memories about Herb I’ve written as part of my own unpublished memoirs (of a sort) about my lifetime in commercial aviation.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