Herbert (Herb) David Kelleher, architect and former chief executive officer of Southwest Airlines, son of Harry Aloysius Kelleher and Ruth Violet (Moore) Kelleher, was born in Camden, New Jersey, on March 12, 1931. Kelleher graduated from Haddon Heights High School in Audubon, New Jersey, and attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, from which he earned numerous honors, during the early 1950s; while at Wesleyan he served as class president and secretary, and college body president, and was a member of the pre-law club. While attending Wesleyan University, Kelleher met Joan Negley, whom he subsequently married in 1955 following graduation; he later attended law school at New York University.
Following law school, Kelleher began his career in New Jersey, where his wife and children stayed at least through the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s Kelleher found himself an established lawyer in San Antonio, Texas. Along with one of his clients, Rollin King, Kelleher’s biggest influence was founding an airline company that revolutionized the aviation world. According to legend, in 1966 King and Kelleher, while sitting in a local bar, outlined on a cocktail napkin the idea for what became Southwest Airlines. This cocktail napkin contained a diagrammed triangle route map that would connect businessmen between Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Not all airline companies were excited about the increased competition, especially Braniff Airlines, American Airlines, and other Texas-based carriers. Utilizing his legal background, Kelleher personally represented Southwest Airlines (initially Air Southwest) in court battles against various other airlines and Texas Aeronautics Commission regulations. Though court battles delayed Southwest’s official beginning, the company finally took flight on June 18, 1971.
For the first seven years of the company’s history, Kelleher served as general counsel until he became chairman in 1978. Following Howard Putnam’s resignation as president of Southwest Airlines in 1981, Herb Kelleher left his law practice and assumed the titles of president and chief executive officer (CEO) in addition to serving as chairman of the board; he continued as president and CEO until 2001. Known as “Herb” to Southwest employees, Kelleher’s management style was revolutionary in the aviation industry. His dash and personality mixed with his astute business mind led to the development of a company that prided itself on its employees coming first. In a 2002 interview, Continental Airlines CEO Larry Kellner described Kelleher as “a guy who changed the industry by being a unique mix of talents.” Kelleher was instrumental in leading Southwest Airlines to develop a long-running profit streak dating back to 1973, and a 1993 study by the U.S. Transportation Department titled “The Southwest Effect” detailed how the airline’s entry into new markets had increased air travel and reduced ticket prices across the industry.
Kelleher, who completely altered the aviation landscape by offering low fares and eliminating fees such as those for checking bags, also had a flair for the dramatic and a special knack for promotion. One effort to maintain lower fares came in the form of the “$13 Fare War” in which Southwest responded to Braniff Airlines’s offer of a $13 fare from Dallas to Houston by allowing Southwest customers to either pay the same fare or pay the full $26 and receive a free bottle of premium liquor. In the two months that followed, Southwest Airlines became the largest Texas distributor of Chivas Regal, Crown Royal, and Smirnoff Vodka.
Perhaps Kelleher’s most well-known exploit came with “Malice in Dallas” in 1992. This confrontation between Southwest Airlines and the smaller Stevens Aviation revolved around Southwest’s usage of the slogan “Just Plane Smart,” which Stevens Aviation Chairman Kurt Herwald claimed had been used illegally. Kelleher challenged Herwald to an arm-wrestling contest that was held (in jest) at the Dallas Sportatorium, In true Kelleher-fashion and in the pro-wrestling spirit of the venue, his shtick elevated the event, and the CEO competed while smoking a cigarette. Although Kelleher lost two out of three rounds, Herwald allowed Southwest to continue using the slogan, and the event raised more than $15,000 for charity.
In 1979 the Wright Amendment passed and in effect reregulated Love Field, out of which Southwest operated, in an attempt to protect the viability of Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport following the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act the previous year. However, Kelleher’s leadership helped the company continue to expand services outside the state, even as the Wright Amendment restricted Southwest’s reach to the four states contiguous to Texas. Within a few years Southwest announced service to numerous cities outside of Texas, such as Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, among many others. As late as 2005 Kelleher continued to argue against the Wright Amendment, which was finally repealed in 2014. Testifying in front of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation in 2005, Kelleher asserted that the Dallas Love Field portion of the Metroplex had fallen behind the DFW side in terms of development and that Southwest Airlines would take part in “any reasonable compromise proposal” geared toward repealing the law.
Ultimately, Southwest Airlines has become one of the most recognizable airlines in the United States, largely due to its reputation for customer and employee appreciation. In honor of Kelleher’s service to Southwest Airlines and to the city of Dallas, in October 2014 a street leading to Dallas Love Field was named in his honor, Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings cited Kelleher as a “city father,” “an icon,” and “something special.” Among his civic activities, in July 2010 Kelleher was appointed chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas board of directors. The growth of Southwest Airlines allowed for the continued growth of Dallas Love Field, which in turn greatly benefitted the city of Dallas. For his service to Southwest Airlines and the aviation industry as a whole, Kelleher received numerous awards, including CEO of the Century by Texas Monthly, inductions into the Dallas Business Hall of Fame, the University of Texas Business Hall of Fame, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Leadership Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and many others.
Herbert David Kelleher died at the age of eighty-seven on January 3, 2019, in Dallas, Texas. He was survived by his wife and three children—Michael, Ruth, and David. His daughter Julie had preceded him in death.