Herb Kelleher, who turned conventional airline industry wisdom on its head by combining low fares with high standards of customer service to build Southwest Airlines into one of the nation’s most successful and admired companies, died on Thursday. He was 87.
The airline announced his death on Twitter. It did not say where he died or give a cause. Southwest is based in Dallas, and Mr. Kelleher had a home there.
Under the fun-loving, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, New Jersey-born Mr. Kelleher, Southwest, which began in 1971 as a low-fare intrastate carrier serving three Texas cities — Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — grew into the behemoth that today carries more than 120 million passengers a year, making it the nation’s most popular domestic airline.
Southwest employs more than 58,000 people and has been profitable every year since two years after it was founded. During Mr. Kelleher’s tenure, the company never had a layoff, furlough or pay cut, despite being among the most unionized airlines in the world.
His vision for the airline — one that reshaped the industry — centered on using more fuel-efficient, low-cost planes to reduce fares and challenging his employees to provide no-frills service without lowering standards.
Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and former executive, said that by eliminating onerous fees and unnecessary services and using secondary airports, like Love Field in Dallas, Southwest brought low prices to the market and stimulated demand for air travel. Now, given a choice between driving and flying, legions of travelers opted for the plane.
“He literally brought air travel to the masses on a scale that was unimaginable,” Mr. Mann said. Southwest’s entry into a market inevitably led to lower fares across the board. This became known as the Southwest Effect.
By paying his employees well, avoiding layoffs and instilling a spirit of fun in the company’s culture, Mr. Kelleher also set a tone for Southwest that translated into customer loyalty,