Herbert Kelleher, who co-founded pioneering low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines Co and built it into an industry powerhouse stamped with his colorful, unconventional personality, died on Thursday at age 87, the U.S. carrier said, Reuters reported.
Kelleher set up Southwest with Rollin King more than 50 years ago, with the airline making its first flight in June 1971. King died in 2014 at age 83.
Dallas-based Southwest is known for its quirky culture, closely connected with Kelleher’s maverick image, as well as its fast growth from a regional carrier into one of the biggest in the United States.
The airline flew short flights known as point-to-point, rather than the hub-and-spoke model of its bigger rivals, and used a single model of aircraft, Boeing Co’s 737, to cut complexity and cost.
Kelleher was “Grand Master Yoda of low fares airlines,” the chief executive of Europe’s largest low-cost carrier Ryanair said in a Twitter post on Friday.
“He was the leader, the visionary and the teacher: without Herb there would be no Ryanair and no low fares airlines anywhere,” said Michael O’Leary, who spearheaded the transformation of European air travel after a visit to Southwest in 1992.
Southwest’s cabin crews have become known for their good humor – a legacy of Kelleher, memorialized in a “laugh button” that visitors could press inside the company’s headquarters to hear his famous cackle.
Kelleher won the affection of customers and employees with low fares, good wages and his own high spirits. He sought to instill a sense of fun among employees, sometimes showing up in costume or helping unload baggage.
“A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear,” he was once quoted as saying. Kelleher was also known for his fondness for smoking and bourbon.
John Plueger, chief executive of Air Lease Corp, said on Thursday that when he first met Kelleher more than 30 years ago, Kelleher was about to deliver a speech at a New York hotel. “The manager asked that he refrain from smoking. Herb looked up, smiled, and said: ‘No smokey, No talkey’.”
Kelleher was a formidable industry competitor as well, Reuters adds.
“There aren’t a whole lot of individuals who you can point to that single-handedly contributed to building a demonstrable portion of the modern economy. Herb Kelleher was one,” tweeted Jon Ostrower, an independent aviation commentator and editor of TheAirCurrent.com.
“His model spawned the global democratization of the affordable movement of humanity by air,” Ostrower noted.