It’s a typical day at anything-but- typical Southwest Airlines. Employees scurry around the company’s headquarters on the edge of Dallas’ Love Field in jeans, T-shirts, and other casual attire. Upstairs in the executive suite, their gregarious commander-in-chief, Herb Kelleher, is wearing his CEO power suit: a denim shirt, gray slacks, and topsiders. Having fun at work tops the agenda here, and Kelleher sets the tone, joking with colleagues, hugging female and male co-workers, and gleefully plotting the course for Southwest’s flight into a new millennium. At an age when other chief executives have retired to the golf course or the tennis court, Kelleher, who turns 68 on March 12, is the Energizer Bunny of the skies: He keeps going and going, beating the drum for low fares and frequent hops between more and more cities.
The beat, though, is changing. The hops are getting longer, and Kelleher—as much as he insists that he doesn’t plan to retire—can’t keep going forever. What’s arguably the most successful airline in the business, one that transformed the way people think about travel, is in the midst of its own evolution. The tiny carrier that began flying almost 28 years ago between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio and built a reputation on short, no-frills flights is now taking giant leaps to both coasts. And it’s landing in some unlikely places. On March 14 the airline will jump all the way to Islip, Long Island’s MacArthur Airport, its first entrée into the New York market. “We’re going to continue to add new cities,” Kelleher says—perhaps two or three each year.
Looking at Southwest’s expanding route map, with lines connecting dots all over the country, it’s clear that the company isn’t just the national airline of Texas anymore. It’s a national airline, period. And it’s only going to get more national as time goes on.
At the Seattle Airport last fall to catch a flight back to Texas, I did a double take: a Southwest plane was taking off. It’s a familiar sight at Love Field, Houston’s Hobby Airport, and the other airports all over Texas, of course, but to see the familiar tan, red, and orange stripes streaking down a runway in the Pacific Northwest was startling. It underscored just how far Southwest has spread its wings.
Since its very first flight—from Dallas to Houston—the airline has pushed into every corner of the country and into the largest aviation markets: Chicago, Los Angeles, and in recent years, the East Coast. Since starting service to Baltimore in 1993, it has added flights up and down the Atlantic seaboard: to Florida and Providence, Rhode Island, in 1996; to Manchester, New Hampshire, last June; and now to New York, from which Southwest will initially make twelve daily nonstops (eight to Baltimore, two to Chicago, and one each to Nashville and Tampa). “In the early years, if anyone had suggested we’d be going into the Northeast or Chicago, we’d have laughed,” says Rollin King, who founded Southwest with Kelleher and served for seven years as its president (though he is now retired, he still sits on the company’s board, as he has since the company’s inception). When it started flying, the airline had only three planes, and it had to move them around quickly and keep them in the air to survive. Today Southwest has a fleet approaching three hundred planes and flies to more than 50 cities in more than half the states in America. Analysts say the cities it will likely serve next are Allentown, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Fort Myers, Florida. Southwest will say only that it has 150 to 160 cities on its list of prospects and doesn’t like to commit to anything too far in advance. “We try to stay fairly nimble in our opportunities,” says Jim Wimberly, its executive vice president of operations.
As Southwest expands, though, its once-sharp image as a short-haul airline is getting blurry. While it still flies point to point rather than hub to hub, as its larger competitors do, the average length of its flights has jumped from five hundred miles in the early nineties to more than six hundred miles by the end of last year. The average fare has crept up too, from just under $60 in the early nineties to about $75 today. At the end of 1998, about 300 of its more than 2,300 daily flights—roughly 13 percent—lasted two hours or longer. Until recently, passengers could fly cross-country on the airline only by making a stop in Nashville, Albuquerque, Phoenix, or Kansas City, Missouri. (It hasn’t routed those flights through Houston because they would compete against long-haul flights by American and other big airlines; it hasn’t routed them through Dallas because a federal law known as the Wright Amendment prohibits long-haul flights from Love Field.) These days, however, Southwest is nearly transcontinental. Last Thanksgiving it made a test run of its first nonstop flight from Baltimore to Oakland, which cost $99 each way. The next month, it added three daily nonstop flights from Baltimore to Phoenix—at two thousand miles, the longest regularly scheduled flight in Southwest’s history.
“When we first started flying,” says King, “we thought fifty minutes to an hour was about the longest customers would take for single-class service with no amenities at all, other than drinks and peanuts. It’s as much that the traveling public has changed.” Indeed, seduced by cheaper fares, passengers seem willing to give up expensive perks like meal service, movies, assigned seating, and first-class sections in favor of cattle-car boarding, peanuts, and packed Boeing 737s. On long flights many people bring boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken or other food of their own aboard, though that may no longer be necessary; Southwest recently amended its food-service policy, and now, on certain flights, flight attendants offer a “snack pack” with a sausage link, cheese, crackers, and a granola bar.
The long flights have also been an adjustment for the flight attendants, who are used to short jaunts and snappy service, says Paul Sweetin,