The mother of all low-cost carriers got its start as a triangle scrawled on a bar napkin. The corners represented San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston—the three cities to be connected by Southwest.
Rollin King presented this picture to Herb Kelleher in 1967, and Kelleher quit his law job and began defending Southwest against the airlines threatened by the very idea of Southwest. The single state airline, which wasn’t tied up in any federal regulation, had the potential to offer low fares, a business tactic James Fallows wrote about in “The Great Texas Airline War,” our first piece covering Southwest in 1975. (He correctly noted that the fate of Southwest would preview the fate of American airlines after deregulation.)
Flying point-to-point was one of the main innovations of Southwest. That and keeping costs really, really low. Tickets were cheap because there was no food on flights, no seat assignments, no classes—as contributing editor Jan Jarboe Russell wrote in 1989, “everyone was treated the same.” Southwest didn’t charge cancellation fees, or bag fees, and they had quick turnaround times, so that two years after its first flight, Southwest’s flight schedule, as senior editor S. C. Gwyne wrote in 2012, “began to resemble a bus schedule.”
What Southwest lacked in frills, it made up for in spunk. As Colleen Barrett, Bill Kelleher’s longtime secretary and the president of Southwest from 2001 to 2008, told Texas Monthly in 2003, “To make up for the advertising we couldn’t afford, we decided we were going to be fun, zesty, and a little irreverent to generate a buzz.” The models for their first ads were their “big haired flight attendants,” who, Russell wrote, “look like they went to the same West Texas high school.” Once on board, the flight attendants would strip down into red-and-orange hot pants and go-go boots. They sang songs, cracked jokes, and seduced clients with their Texas friendliness. When Southwest could finally afford advertising they gave their account to Austin-based GSD&M, a group of wild UT graduates flying by the seat of their pants and the fire of their imagination.
In the early days Southwest only hired one percent of all applicants, and “managers used such things as the humor test to weed out candidates,” Gwynne wrote. “Prospective pilots were sometimes asked to change into Southwest shorts during their interviews; if they weren’t good sports they weren’t hired.” Southwest attributes its success to its unconventional values: employees first, passengers second, shareholders third.
In the 2000s, Southwest profited from fuel hedging and was one of the only airlines to avoid bankruptcy. Southwest acquired AirTrans in 2010, adding 8,000 employees to their 35,000. Despite several union disputes surrounding the merge, Southwest Airlines remains one of the most consistently profitable carriers. They are the largest low-cost domestic airline, and, in terms of customers carried as of 2011, the largest airline period.
How Herb Kelleher Made the World a Whole Lot Smaller
The Southwest Airlines cofounder was a pioneering entrepreneur who changed the way we travel. He was also a world-class wit, a bon vivant, and a not-so-closet intellectual.
You Can Bring Your Trained Service Miniature Horse on Southwest Flights
The company’s new service animal policy has been making headlines.
Southwest has Found a New Way to Make Air Travel Annoying
In-flight live music is the definition of a captive audience.
Southwest is Testing a New Way to Get Off of Airplanes
Sitting at the back of the plane may no longer be a curse.
Southwest Airlines Plays with Fees
Southwest Airlines announced that it would start charging fees for no-shows and for third bags on Friday.
Southwest Cracks Down on Cleavage
A naturally large-chested woman in a sundress didn’t feel the “LUV” from Southwest when a gate agent dubbed her cleavage-revealing outfit “inappropriate.”
Will Hobby Become an International Airport?
United and Southwest are squabbling over whether Houston Hobby should become an international airport. Which airline will prevail?
Meet Warrior One, Southwest’s Newest (and Biggest) Plane
The airline unveiled its new 737-800 aircrafts, which have more seats and will allow for longer flights. First takeoff is scheduled for April 11.
A Q&A With S. C. Gwynne
The senior editor on understanding Southwest Airline’s culture, hearing jokes about plane crashes from a flight attendant, and making a business story interesting to the average reader.
Luv and War at 30,000 Feet
Somehow, as every other major airline went bankrupt, slashed its workforce, or grounded planes, Southwest Airlines kept flying high. Today, Southwest is the country’s largest domestic carrier. So how does a feisty underdog vanquish its competitors and dominate a thoroughly beleaguered industry? One Kick Tail-a-Gram at a time.
A Boy and His Airline
No kid ever had more fun with his favorite toy than Herb Kelleher has in running Southwest Airlines.
I hate flying. I don’t mean that I’m a legitimate, doctor-approved aerophobe who munches Xanax like candy and lunges for the barf bag at the first sign of turbulence. I just dislike the minor ordeal of air travel—the security lines, …
“If a shoe factory closes in Seattle, you can’t move it to San Antonio and have it competing there within a couple of hours, but with airplanes you can. I’ve always said that I want us to strike with the speed and alacrity of a puma.”
The secret to running Southwest Airlines? Be sentimental. Share. And love.
Mimi Swartz sizes up the legacy of Stanley Marcus.
Herb’s Flight Plan
For 28 years Herb Kelleher has run Southwest Airlines as a low-cost, short-haul carrier that’s fun to fly on and even more fun to work for. But there could be changes on the horizon.
The plane truth about airline surcharges.
Mesilla Real Soon
The time is ripe, and so are the chiles: This tiny, homey town in New Mexico is the ideal spot for a fall weekend getaway.
Ad Men at War
How the battle for the Southwest Airlines account turned into a long-awaited showdown between Texas’s two top agencies.
The Great Airline War
Will Texas International Airlines’s “whiz kids” fizzle?! Will sexy Southwest conquer all?! Will Braniff lose its routes?!