DALLAS (AP) -- Not many CEOs dress up as Elvis Presley, settle a business dispute with an arm-wrestling contest, or go on TV wearing a paper bag over their head.
Herb Kelleher did all those things. Along the way, the co-founder and longtime leader of Southwest Airlines also revolutionized air travel by practically inventing the low-cost, low-fare airline.
Kelleher died on Thursday. He was 87. Southwest confirmed his death but did not indicate the cause.
In the late 1960s, the nation’s airlines were a clique of venerable companies that offered onboard dining, movies and other amenities to make flying pleasant but pricey. Fares approved by federal regulators made air travel a luxury that few could afford.
Kelleher was a lawyer in San Antonio in 1967 when a client, Rollin King, came to him with the idea for a low-fare airline that would fly between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Kelleher guided Southwest through a thicket of legal obstacles thrown up by other airlines, and the new carrier began flying in 1971.
Southwest kept costs low. It flew just one kind of plane, the Boeing 737, to make maintenance simpler and cheaper. It gave out peanuts instead of meals. There were no assigned seats. It operated from less-congested secondary airports to avoid money-burning delays.
Southwest turned a profit in 1973 and hasn’t suffered a money-losing year since — a streak unmatched in the U.S. airline business.
Kelleher became Southwest’s chairman in 1978 and CEO in 1982, as federal regulation of airline prices was disappearing. He led the company through its period of greatest growth. As Southwest entered new cities, it forced other airlines to match its lower prices. Federal officials dubbed this “the Southwest Effect.”
Today, Southwest carries more passengers within the United States than any airline. While critics say Southwest has come to resemble the bigger carriers that it once fought against, it created a model of streamlined operations, low costs and lower fares that spawned similar airlines around the world.
If Southwest was different, so was its garrulous CEO — a wisecracking chain smoker who bragged about his fondness for Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey.
Kelleher was so outgoing that it would take him ages to walk through an airport — he seemed to stop every few feet to chat with employees and passengers. He had a booming laugh, a bottomless trove of anecdotes, and a lawyer’s precise way with words.
Herbert D. Kelleher was born in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, and got his first job — for $2.50 a week — making sure that copies of the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper were delivered. He graduated from Wesleyan University and earned a law degree from New York University in 1956.
Kelleher is survived by his wife, Joan, and three of their four children.