Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Herb Kelleher Dies At 87 Herb Kelleher, who died Thursday, was known for building the business on affordable flights, and a culture that put employees and customer service first.
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Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Herb Kelleher Dies At 87

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Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Herb Kelleher Dies At 87

Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Herb Kelleher Dies At 87

Southwest Airlines Co-Founder Herb Kelleher Dies At 87

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/682133744/682133745" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Herb Kelleher, who died Thursday, was known for building the business on affordable flights, and a culture that put employees and customer service first.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sorry to tell you that Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest Airlines and a pioneering businessman, died yesterday. He was 87.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Kelleher was probably the most recognized person in the airline industry. He had a big personality. He settled disputes by arm-wrestling. He went on TV with a bag over his head. Above all, he burnished the brand of a no-frills airline.

INSKEEP: We should settle disputes here by arm-wrestling...

MARTIN: Should we?

INSKEEP: ...Don't you think? Well, maybe not.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: The bag - probably interfere with the microphone. Anyway, before all of that, Herb Kelleher was a lawyer in Texas. And in 1967, a client approached him with an idea for a low-fare airline that would serve just three cities in Texas - didn't take long for Kelleher to embrace the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HERB KELLEHER: Maybe, you know, like a minute (laughter).

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: That fast - wow.

KELLEHER: No, it was longer than that. I was just joking.

MARTIN: That was Kelleher in 2016 in an interview with Guy Raz on NPR's How I Built This podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KELLEHER: We told the public of Texas that you could fly at the lower fare. But if you paid the higher fare, we would give you a free bottle of whiskey. And so for a couple of months, we became the largest liquor distributor...

RAZ: (Laughter).

KELLEHER: ...In the state of Texas.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK. Southwest did face opposition from more established competitors. It was a more regulated time, and the company ended up in years of legal battles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KELLEHER: And in 1969, the board of directors had a meeting and talked about shutting the airline down - shutting the company down. And I said, well, how about if I litigate for nothing and pay all the court costs out of my own pocket? Would you be willing to continue under those circumstances? And they said, oh, sure (laughter).

MARTIN: Southwest Airlines finally flew its first flight in 1971. And as we all know, take off it did. It spread throughout the country and now is the airline industry giant we know it to be today. The key to success...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KELLEHER: I knew nothing about airlines, which I think made me eminently qualified...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEHER: ...To start one.

INSKEEP: Turns out Kelleher was right.

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