Go-go boots clattered across the tarmac as a group of young women scrambled into place at Dallas’s Love Field airport. The boss wanted a photograph. “Okay, girls,” said Lamar Muse, the president of Southwest Airlines. “Y’all smile.” 

It was 1971, and Southwest had recently put its first official flight into the air. Muse asked a group of “hostesses,” as the flight attendants were then called, to pose for a snapshot he planned to send to Harding Lawrence, the CEO of Dallas-based airline Braniff International. 

Lawrence was a bitter rival. He’d spent the prior three years waging a legal war to prevent Southwest from ever getting off the ground. But the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed one final appeal by Braniff in December 1970, clearing the runway for Southwest. 

“Get ready,” Muse said to his smiling hostesses, each of whom was clad in her in-flight uniform of tangerine knit top, slouchy white belt, white side-laced go-go boots, and fire-orange hot pants. “Now, everyone flip Mr. Lawrence the finger.”

Hostess Sally Glenn couldn’t believe what she was about to do. “Oh, my goodness, no,” she thought to herself. She imagined what her mother back in small-town Illinois would say to her if she saw the picture. Yet, like everyone’s around her, Glenn’s fist went up, her middle finger unfurled, and Muse stuck it to his adversary. “Lamar had a way of getting you to do things you might not think you could,” recalls Glenn (now Glenn-Lee) from her home in California, fifty years after Southwest Airlines flew for the first time. 

Fifty. Five-O. No one who was there for the start-up of Southwest Airlines can quite believe that much time has passed. No one can believe how successful their irreverent little company has become, either. “I wish I’d had enough money to buy the stock in the early days,” says Gene Van Overschelde, one of the original pilots and the first head of Southwest’s pilots union. If he’d put just under $1,000 into the company’s stock in 1978, he would have more than $1.5 million today.

Van Overschelde had figured Southwest might last six months competing against much bigger, much better-financed airlines. But as six months stretched into five decades, it outlasted most of its rivals. Braniff, along with dozens of other airlines, went broke and disappeared. Meanwhile, Southwest prospered, posting profits for 47 consecutive years—a streak broken only in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s success spawned copycats and forced its competitors to change in hopes of keeping up. The whole world of passenger flight transformed as a result. “There’s no question Southwest Airlines has had a profound influence on the entire airline industry,” says Bob Crandall, now retired, who made plenty of history of his own as the longtime CEO of Fort Worth–based American Airlines

Indeed, no frills and low fares were once “The Southwest Way.” Now no matter who we fly with, most of us fly that way—whether we like it or not. 

The pandemic might have ended all that success for Southwest. It still might. Last year, the airline lost money—billions of dollars—for the first time since 1972. Still, its leadership is optimistic that the skies will clear as early as this year. They nurture that faith by looking to Southwest’s past. “Our history gives us confidence,” says Gary Kelly, Southwest’s CEO. “We know that as long as we stick together, we can fight our way through challenges.”

It’s true enough that Southwest has overcome daunting challenges before. On the day in January 1971 when Lamar Muse became employee number one, Southwest had no real offices, no staff, no gates, and no planes. It owed about $100,000 to its attorney, Herb Kelleher, and it had a little more than $100 in the bank. But 143 days later, on June 18, 1971, Southwest Airlines somehow had $7 million in cash, three brand-new 737 jets, gates at three Texas airports, a staff of more than two hundred, and a maiden flight barreling down the runway at Love Field. 

To understand Southwest’s subsequent success, it helps to know how the airline got off the ground in the first place. It’s a story that involves Mad Men and lawmen, rats and pigeons, love machines and love triangles, and, of course, hot pants.

Southwest founder Rollin King and then-president Lamar Muse at Love Field in 1974.
Southwest founder Rollin King (left) and then-president Lamar Muse at Love Field in 1974Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

I ’m about to buy some DC-9s,” Lamar Muse told a Boeing executive over a pay phone one afternoon in mid-March 1971. “But I’d rather buy from you.”

Six weeks after he was hired, Muse was at the headquarters of Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California, looking to cut a deal for Southwest’s first planes, three Douglas DC-9s. Muse would have preferred the Boeing 737-200, which first rolled off the assembly line in 1968 and had six seats per row, compared with the DC-9’s five. But at nearly $5 million a plane, barely-in-business Southwest couldn’t afford Boeing’s jet.

Southwest still had no employees other than Muse, a bespectacled 51-year-old with a head of silver hair, and a matching wisp of a mustache, who’d grown up in the East Texas town of Palestine and spoke with a distinctive drawl. He’d been an executive at several carriers, including Continental and American. He’d also run Universal Airlines from 1967 to 1969 before quitting after sparring with the company’s board. 

Working out of a room at the Hilton Hotel on Central Expressway in Dallas, Muse had zigzagged Texas peddling stakes in a debt offering—a sort of a corporate bond that would pay investors back with interest if the airline succeeded. Most of the boldfaced names of that era of Texas business turned him down. Houston oilionaire Hugh Roy Cullen passed. So did Lamar Hunt. But John Murchison, a co-owner of the Dallas Cowboys, took two stakes, as did six others, including Muse himself. On March 10, Muse put their combined $1.25 million in the bank. (The deposit slip from the transaction is on display at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field.) 

That was enough money to buy jets, if Muse could negotiate a favorable payment plan. In the lobby at Douglas’s sprawling Long Beach offices, he waited by the pay phone for his contact at Boeing to call him back on that day in mid-March 1971. As Muse, who died in 2007, recalled in his autobiography, Southwest Passage, he knew he had Boeing right where he wanted it.

There was a recession in 1971, and three customers had just canceled orders for planes Boeing had already built. The aircraft were sitting on a tarmac, unpainted but ready to fly. So Muse strong-armed the Seattle plane maker, offering unprecedented terms while he was standing on their competitor’s turf. Boeing caved. It sold Southwest the three 737s for $4 million each, with no money down. 

It’s hard to know how aviation history might have turned out if Lamar Muse hadn’t had a few dimes in his pocket to make a call that day. Southwest is the biggest customer for 737s, and the airline’s success helped popularize that plane around the world.

Muse was determined to get Southwest flying by the start of the summer. The rush was understandable. He needed to begin generating revenue as quickly as possible to offset the substantial costs of running a company whose primary assets weigh 57,000 pounds and move at 500 miles per hour. 

There might not have been such urgency had Southwest not already had such a bumpy ride. Soon after Herb Kelleher filed the incorporation papers in March 1967, competitors moved to block the upstart airline with multiple legal challenges that, in essence, suggested Southwest had no legal right to exist. The assault lasted three and a half years, until the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear from Braniff.

Southwest was branded “the love airline.” Tickets were issued from “love machines.” In-flight snacks were “love bites.” The drinks were “love potions.” 

Southwest’s founder, Rollin King, had anticipated the competition trying to keep his airline grounded because its business model threaded a loophole in federal regulations that others couldn’t. At that time, a federal agency told airlines when and where they could fly, as well as what they could charge passengers. Those regulations led major carriers to focus on long-haul customers and to structure their route networks as “interline” service, operating like passenger trains that make multiple stops between two endpoints. “One of Braniff’s so-called commuter flights in Texas actually originated in Frankfurt, Germany,” King told me over breakfast at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas in 2006.

But airlines operating solely within the borders of one state could avoid the onerous federal regulations. Southwest could fly wherever and whenever it wanted within Texas and charge fares cheap enough to get Texans out of their cars and into the skies.

King’s idea (which he’d unapologetically borrowed from two intrastate carriers in California, Air California and Pacific Southwest Airlines) was hardly simplistic, but a much-repeated version of the Southwest origin story makes it seem otherwise: In the fall of 1966, King meets his lawyer, Herb Kelleher, in the bar at San Antonio’s St. Anthony Club. They discuss the idea of a commuter airline in Texas. On a cocktail napkin, King sketches the business plan—a triangle representing the cities of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, which the airline would serve. 

A business plan on a cocktail napkin? Whoo-whee, those boys in Texas were crazy! As the story goes, Southwest Airlines was infused with the pair’s freewheeling, quirky spirit, and therein lies the secret to its success. 

Except there never was such a pie-eyed plan penned on such paper. King, who died in 2014, told me as much during that Mansion breakfast. “A number of things that have been said about the early years were not true,” he said.

To cite another instance of mythmaking about Southwest, other than his proclivity for profanity, King wasn’t exactly quirky. In 1966, he was a 36-year-old, mostly buttoned-up native Clevelander with a Harvard MBA who’d moved to San Antonio in 1964 and worked as an investment banker. And it was years before Kelleher, a New Jersey transplant to Texas, became the famously joking, chain-smoking, Wild Turkey–swilling embodiment of Southwest’s much-copied corporate culture. “Herb was just the attorney,” remembers Jan Lightfoot-Evans, Southwest’s first “chief of hostesses” and part of the original 1971 team. “He was nice, and he was fun, but at that time he was not yet a persona.”

Lamar Muse might not have been a persona either in 1971, but he did have much to do with crafting the corporate persona of Southwest Airlines—with a little help from a team of ad men.

Amid his fund-raising blitz, in February 1971, Muse went to see a 31-year-old named Ray Trapp at the offices of Bloom Advertising on South Akard Street in downtown Dallas. Trapp had previously worked in the Mad Men–era world of New York advertising. He fancied three-piece suits and monogrammed cuffs, and his gold Mercedes-Benz 190SL was worth more than the entirety of Southwest’s assets.

Muse wanted the airline’s brand to stand out in the market. “We felt the other carriers were stodgy. Southwest needed to be livelier,” says Trapp, now 81 and working at Infinity Investment Banking in Dallas. To start, the Bloom team developed what’s known as a personality description model. It defined Southwest as a young woman. “This lady is young and vital,” it read. “She is charming and goes through life with great flair and exuberance … yet she is quite efficient and approaches all her tasks with care and attention.” 

The Bloom concept for an initial branding campaign was to portray Southwest as “the love airline.” Trapp claims that had nothing to do with the company’s headquarters at Love Field, which is named for an early Army aviator who died in a training crash. Rather, it was simply because, in 1971, love was hip. There were still plenty of flower children around suggesting people “make love, not war.”

So the Bloom team wanted to spread love all over Southwest. Tickets would be issued from “love machines.” Snacks would be “love bites.” The free in-flight drinks would be “love potions.” Southwest would also serve passengers its own craft cocktails, including such drinks as the Kentucky Matchmaker, the Pucker Potion, and the Lucky Lindsay.

Those branding concepts informed not just Southwest’s marketing but also the airline’s hiring decisions. “We wanted a fun, casual attitude to be part of each flight,” Trapp recalls. “We were going to look for hostesses who were fun and outgoing. They had to have a sense of humor. They had to have an engaging personality.”

While Bloom was helping Southwest to cultivate this image of a laid-back attitude that remains integral to the airline’s public face today, news came in early April that Purdue Airlines in Indiana had decided to shut down. Purdue was launched as a teaching airline by the university of the same name but had been purchased by an investor and was faltering. With its impending closure, 22 jet-certified pilots, several operations specialists, and a few dozen flight attendants and mechanics would all, unexpectedly, be on the job market just as Southwest was eager to hire experienced crews.

Dick Elliott, Southwest’s just-hired chief of marketing, was on the ground at Purdue Airlines’ headquarters before Lamar Muse even knew he’d left Dallas. He met with the soon-to-be-jobless flight attendants and blurted out, “Well, look, you’re all wonderful, and you’re all hired.”

Purdue’s head of flight attendants, Jan Lightfoot-Evans (her name was Jan Arnold in 1971), was shocked. She recalls recently from her home in Dallas that she pulled Elliott aside that day and told him that some of the flight attendants had been skirting rules. “Your new airline can do things fast if you want, but you also have to respect rules and regulations, or I’m not going to be a part of it,” she told Elliott. He promptly modified his earlier offer. In the end, only a little more than a handful of Purdue’s flight attendants made the trip to Dallas. 

To fill out the first group of 38 flight attendants, Southwest ran its first-ever ad in May 1971. Written by Trapp’s team, it was a help-wanted missive titled “An Open Letter to Raquel Welch.” It read, in part, “Ms. Welch: You typify the girls we’re looking for: Warm, personable, and great-looking in hot pants. … If you know of any other girls like you (at least 20 years old, 20/50 vision, without glasses, between 5’2” and 5’7”, 100-135 pounds) … would you please ask them to send us a brief statement of qualifications and a recent photograph?” 

In the context of the times—when selling the sex appeal of all-female crews of flight attendants was an industry norm—the ad might not have come off quite as sexist as it reads today. Regardless, it generated 1,200 applications. Dozens of hopefuls, among them models and beauty pageant winners, were selected for interviews. “We wanted to find out whether they could engage with the customers, ninety percent of whom we knew were going to be men,” Trapp says. 

The hostesses were expected to make those men feel at home. Baytown native Jill Cohn (then Jill Allen—she later married original Southwest pilot Sam Cohn, who died in 2012) remembers that after she was hired, “The executives said, ‘We’ll get the passengers on board, then it’s your job to make them come back.’” That’s why Southwest asked each flight attendant to spend about three minutes talking to each passenger on board every flight.

But the interviewers weren’t just interested in the prospective hostesses’ ability to sustain conversations. They were also unapologetically after women who would look great in those revealing hot pants.  

Southwest Flight Attendant uniforms in the 90s.
Southwest flight attendants in the nineties. Their uniforms have changed noticeably since 1971. Courtesy of Southwest Airlines
The original Southwest livery.
Southwest’s planes were originally painted a color the airline called desert gold but that some employees dubbed “baby shit brown.” Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Debbie Muse Carlson (then Debbie Muse), the twenty-year-old daughter of Lamar Muse, was among the interviewees who wasn’t fazed by that requirement. She had taken leave from her studies at Vanderbilt University to join her father in his new business. She says she got the job because of her family connections, just not the connections you might expect. “You had to have great legs to be a hostess,” Muse Carlson told me from her home in Dallas. “Luckily my mother had great legs, and I got great legs from her.”

Juanice Muse, Lamar’s wife and Debbie’s mother, made her own contribution to the start-up effort. She was on the design team for the first hostess uniforms. Hot pants were a key feature early on, but the original prototype was more revealing than Juanice could accept. “The scoop neck on the sweater was cut so low that it would have revealed a lot,” recalls Muse Carlson. Juanice objected, saying, “My twenty-year-old daughter is going to be wearing this uniform. I will not allow her to wear something that revealing. The hot pants should be sufficient.” The neckline went up.

Inside the terminal, and out on the tarmac, the hostesses wore a safari skirt and jacket that covered even more. “Once we closed the airplane door and started taxiing,” Cohn says, “we took those off, and we just had our top and our shorts on. When we landed and we were taxiing again, we put the skirt and jacket back on.”

Sally Glenn-Lee remembers Lamar Muse telling her, “If someone wants to see the hot pants, they’ve got to buy a ticket.”

Just one month and one day before the first flight was to take off, Karson Druckamiller, a mechanic hired from Purdue, arrived at Love Field for the first time. He’d forgotten where, exactly, he was supposed to report, so he pulled over his car and asked someone for the location of the Southwest Airlines offices. He recalls the reply: “They said, ‘Who is Southwest?’” 

Fifty years later, no one asks that question anymore. Druckamiller is 73 now, and he’s one of just three original employees remaining on the payroll. He plans to retire this year in honor of the company’s fifty-year anniversary. “It’s been the best place to get up and go to work for every morning,” he says. 

The first thing Druckamiller and the other mechanics had to make work was Southwest’s lone hangar at Love Field. A Quonset hut—a semicylindrical, lightweight steel structure—built during World War II, it hadn’t been used in decades, and its doors had rusted shut. After hours of welding and hammering, the mechanics discovered sand clogging the sliding tracks that took two days to clear before they could get the doors open. “Then we had to chase all the rats and the pigeons out,” says Druckamiller, who spent 27 years in Dallas before relocating to Tampa. 

In mid-May 1971, the first of Southwest’s three 737-200s headed to Texas from Boeing’s Seattle factory. The airline’s unique paint scheme wasn’t a hit with some of the original employees. The planes featured a primary color Southwest called desert gold but that some employees immediately dubbed “baby shit brown.” 

Herb Kelleher didn’t seem to mind the clashing colors. He’d say in later years that he walked up to the first jet and “kissed that baby on the lips and cried.” He also might easily have gotten himself killed that day.

As a crew was checking out the plane, Kelleher, sporting pork chop sideburns, stuck his head inside one of the engines. A mechanic yanked him out. Kelleher knew little about the operation of the engines, so he had no idea the danger he’d put himself in. “If that thrust reverser goes off,” Kelleher later recalled the mechanic telling him, “it will decapitate you.” 

The Federal Aviation Administration required new airlines to log fifty hours in the air with each plane—so-called proving runs—before using them for passenger service. With just fifty or so minutes of flying time between the cities in Southwest’s “love triangle” of Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston, that meant the airline needed to run about ten flights per day, per plane, if it was going to be ready by June 18.

That was a lot for an airline that was still training its flight attendants at a nearby Holiday Inn and that still had pilots working on a simulator in Denver. “But there was never any thought that we couldn’t do it,” Lightfoot-Evans says. “So there were no weekends. We were a family, and we trusted each other, and we were just going to get it done.”

“Lamar, if the sheriff shows up, you push the first flight out on top of him,” Kelleher said. “Roll right over that son of a bitch, and leave our tire marks on his back.”

It all almost came undone anyway. On June 16, the same day the first flight-attendant class graduated with its FAA certifications, Braniff and Texas International Airlines persuaded a Travis County district court judge to grant a restraining order that would ground Southwest. When Muse found out, he called Southwest board member John Peace, a lawyer in San Antonio who served on an advisory board for the Supreme Court of Texas. Peace happened to be on his way to Austin to a reception honoring the justices, and he promised to talk to them there. 

Meanwhile, Herb Kelleher had just wrapped up days of meetings with the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington and was on his way back to San Antonio, with a layover in Dallas at Love Field. Muse told Southwest’s dispatch office at Love Field to redirect one of the 737-200s to prepare for a proving flight to Austin. Then he sped over to the main terminal at Love Field to get Kelleher on that Southwest plane.

Whatever Kelleher and Peace did in Austin worked. In a hearing less than 24 hours before Southwest’s first flight, the Texas Supreme Court temporarily suspended the restraining order. Muse asked Kelleher what the airline should do if a lawman showed up the next morning to serve the restraining order anyway. “Lamar, if the sheriff shows up, you push the first flight out on top of him,” Kelleher said. “Roll right over that son of a bitch, and leave our tire marks on his back.”

On June 18, 1971, at 6:30 a.m., as captain Emilio Salazar and first officer Bob Pratt shook hands and posed for pictures with Dallas mayor pro tem Ted Holland on the Love Field tarmac, the sheriff was nowhere to be found. A crew of five climbed up airstairs to the plane, followed by about ten paying passengers. Exactly one piece of checked luggage was loaded into the cargo hold. The plane taxied away and took off at 7 a.m., right on time.

The day was hot, which made for a bumpy ride. Working the back of the cabin, Debbie Muse Carlson felt both nervous and ill. She’d been so well-known in her family for getting queasy on flights that she’d shocked everyone when she said she was going to be a Southwest hostess. As the plane approached San Antonio, she locked herself in the bathroom and threw up. 

“Debbie, you are never going to throw up again on an airplane,” she told herself. “This is the last time for as long as you live. You are going to do this job.”

She kept that vow, and Southwest kept flying.

Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher and Southwest CEO Gary Kelly celebrate the end of the Wright Amendment in Dallas on October 13, 2014.
Herb Kelleher (left), Southwest’s legendary longtime CEO, was succeeded by Gary Kelly, who today faces the task of leading the airline’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.Brandon Wade/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram via AP

That first flight lost money, and two years of financial turbulence followed. But when Lamar Muse ended up in what came to be known as the $13 Fare War with Braniff and slyly won it by handing out free bottles of booze, Southwest’s bookings soared. The company turned its first profit and kept doing the same year after year. Then came the pandemic. 

When the world locked down because of COVID-19, Southwest’s revenue plunged. In April 2020, it was down 92 percent compared with the same month the previous year. Tammy Romo, the company’s chief financial officer and a thirty-year veteran of Southwest, told me that she’ll never forget how horrible it felt to watch the steep decline in bookings. “I well up just talking about it,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is our company, our people. How can any company get through business falling off to that degree?’”

Revenue fell, of course, for every airline in the world. Southwest ultimately lost $3.1 billion in 2020, on revenue of $9 billion, which was about 59 percent less than its revenue in 2019.  Southwest has survived, at least so far, because it entered the slump in a far better financial position than most of its competitors and because, along with them, it received billions of dollars in federal aid. 

First, the financials: Southwest’s debt-to-equity ratio, a measure that indicates its borrowing power, was the lowest in its 49-year history going into 2020, and it had about $4 billion in cash on hand. Thanks to a robust 2019, that was about $1 billion more than normal. “But that still wasn’t enough cash,” Romo says. “I knew we would have to raise more money, and we’d have to do it fast because we didn’t know how long this was going to last.”

Southwest immediately borrowed $1 billion from a group of lenders in March 2020. Billions more followed, including money from Washington. As part of its Payroll Support Program for airlines, the federal government gave Southwest $3.2 billion last year. Another $1.2 billion has been handed over in 2021.

“It’s just hard to fathom that we would have been able to scratch our way through this without the government support,” says Kelly, who, along with four other company executives, took a 20 percent pay cut in 2020. “And I felt that if the taxpayers are going to support the jobs at Southwest Airlines, the least we can do is keep the jobs.”

That commitment wasn’t just to taxpayers. Southwest’s leadership has long maintained a “layoffs last” policy in responding to crises. In fifty years, it’s never furloughed workers involuntarily. Other airlines, even as they’ve adopted elements of “the Southwest way,” haven’t copied that part. Combined, the other major carriers announced plans to lay off 90,000 workers in 2020. Many of those employees have been recalled, but not all. Southwest, meanwhile, asked its workers to accept early retirement packages or voluntary leave—16,800 of them, or roughly a quarter of the airline’s total workforce, have taken one of those offers.

That gave the company an advantage when a significant uptick in air travel began in March of this year. Southwest’s staff was either on the job or on standby that month, and most of its fleet had been maintained and was ready to fly. In mid-March the airline added a thousand flights overnight to its daily schedule. By the end of April, the company reported $2.1 billion in revenue for the first quarter. That was still down 50 percent from the mostly pre-pandemic start of 2020, but Southwest posted a small quarterly profit of $116 million.

Having more of its employees waiting in the wings meant Southwest was better positioned to take advantage of the rebound in travel and make money doing so. American and United, which didn’t begin recalling pilots until April, both lost more than $1 billion in the same quarter, and JetBlue lost almost $350 million. 

Winning the kind of cooperation Southwest often gets from workers is easier when you have a generous profit-sharing plan, as Southwest’s employees have had since 1973. But it also helps that they share a collective knowledge of the company’s history. 

Every new employee attends an orientation session called FLY. It stands for Freedom, LUV, and You, and it teaches them how to live “the Southwest way.” This is the way: To be a Southwest employee, you must have three key traits, each of which is explained through lessons from the company’s past. One is a “warrior spirit,” born of the airline’s early battles with competitors, including those three years of litigation before Lamar Muse managed to get flights (and his flight attendants’ middle fingers) in the air. That warrior spirit also carried Southwest through the months after September 11, 2001, when employees took voluntary pay reductions and kept their airline solvent while other carriers cratered. 

Another trait is a “fun-loving attitude,” a concept that Muse somehow infused into the airline from the start. And the third is “a servant’s heart,” which came from an appreciation that Herb Kelleher and former Southwest president Colleen Barrett shared for a concept that became known in the seventies as “servant leadership.”

It all sounds pretty cultish, but it seems to work. Yet FLY and Southwest’s other official corporate histories include some urban legends. One of those is Southwest’s origin story about the cocktail napkin. The company has also long struggled to give Muse enough credit for his foundational contributions. Muse left Southwest after a spat with King and started a competing airline called Muse Air, which Southwest eventually bought and lost millions on before shutting it down. The executive in charge of closing that business was a new hire named Gary Kelly.

Gary Kelly with executives from other major airlines after a meeting regarding an extension of federal aid in Washington, D.C. on September 17, 2020.
Gary Kelly, fifth from left, joined executives from other major U.S. airlines in seeking an extension of federal pandemic aid in Washington, D.C., last September.Alex Brandon/AP

When Kelly joined Southwest in 1986, there were sixty planes in its fleet. “I really did have the sense that all the go-go years were behind us,” he says. “Boy, was I wrong.” Today the fleet includes 747 planes, all Boeing 737s, with many more on the way. In March 2021, Southwest inked a ten-year agreement with Boeing for a hundred 737-Max 7 jets. As an indication of how much the airline values its history, it announced the deal on March 29, exactly fifty years to the day after Muse closed on a deal to buy Southwest’s first 737s from Boeing. 

The all-737s fleet is just one of the elements of Southwest’s strategy that hasn’t changed in five decades. It’s long been a cost saver in maintaining planes and training crews. With one type of aircraft, Southwest can have any mechanic, pilot, or flight attendant work on any of its flights on any given day. But also, as it has since 1971 and unlike its major competitors, Southwest has no assigned passenger seats, has only one class of service, and lets customers check two bags for free.

“Southwest really values the simplicity of that business model,” says Bob Mann, an airline analyst with R. W. Mann & Company and a former executive at American Airlines. “There are a lot of costs that creep in with complexity that they try to avoid.” 

Still, not all of Southwest’s approach is immutable. Last year, before signing the new deal with Boeing, company leaders seriously considered the unthinkable—adding Airbus A220s to its fleet. In 2010, when it bought budget airline AirTran, Southwest grew significantly through acquisition for the first time, copying something other major carriers had been doing for years. The AirTran deal extended Southwest’s route map to look a bit more like its bigger rivals’ too. Southwest once flew only short-haul trips of about 250 miles and went no farther from Dallas than San Antonio. Now it flies an average trip of 750 miles, and its network extends all the way to the Caribbean island of Aruba. Southwest no longer shuns major airports. Just this year, the airline, which has dominated the smaller Midway Airport, in Chicago, added gates at O’Hare. 

Southwest still refers to itself as “the love airline,” the slogan Ray Trapp and his ad men came up with in 1971. But these days it usually spells the operative term “LUV”—like its ticker symbol on the New York Stock Exchange. That seems fitting, given the industry titan the once-upstart carrier has become. In fact, if you look closely at how Southwest does business today, it’s not all that different anymore from the other major U.S. carriers, known in the industry as the Big Three—American, United, and Delta. But Mann says Southwest continues to operate with far lower costs, which enable it to charge lower fares. Well, sometimes, anyway. “Back in the beginning Southwest had low costs and low fares,” Crandall says. “But at the moment, and on any given day, any given route, they may or may not be the low-fare carrier. Low fares and low costs are not the same.” 

In the beginning, Muse was manic about keeping costs low however he could: cramming corporate staff into a tiny office in the original-but-defunct passenger terminal at Love Field, demanding nonstop effort from all employees. Some of the first hostesses recall working six-day weeks. Five days were in the air, and one day was spent on the ground doing promotional work for Southwest—in hot pants, of course. “We didn’t question it; we just did whatever needed to be done to make the company work,” says original flight attendant Jill Cohn.

Fifty years later, with Southwest highly unionized, that kind of thing no longer, well, flies. But the company still touts the high productivity of its people as key to keeping costs low—or at least lower than those of the Big Three. Among other carriers, however, Southwest no longer boasts the lowest costs. Budget airlines such as Frontier and Spirit do.

Meaning that Southwest, with all its growth and within an industry that has adapted to the Southwest business model, is no longer what it once claimed to be—“the low-fare airline.” Kelly says the objective these days is for Southwest to offer not necessarily the lowest fares but “low fares with the best service.” Indeed, the airline consistently ranks at or near the top of influential customer-satisfaction rankings among all carriers. 

Southwest emerged from 2020 with not just top marks for service but also a lot more airports to serve. The company launched an aggressive expansion, with seventeen new destinations—the most it’s ever announced in a single year. It now has gates not only at O’Hare but at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental, Palm Springs International, and fourteen other airports that hadn’t been in its plans before the pandemic. In a normal year, Southwest wouldn’t have had the resources to expand so quickly. But with fewer flights operating because of slack demand, it could move planes and people to wherever there was business. “Sure enough,” Kelly says, “we were able to generate enough revenue so that it was actually adding cash and putting idle assets and idle employees to work.”

Expanding during a moment of crisis is also in keeping with Southwest’s history. “Every time the airline industry has recovered from an economic downturn or some other shock in the past fifty years, Southwest has come out much larger and stronger,” Mann says.

So what about the next fifty years? “Who knows?” Kelly says. “Maybe we’ll have flying cars or something. But I kind of doubt it. Here we are, fifty years after 1971, and we still fly the same type of airplane.” 

This story originally published online on June 3, 2021. It appeared in the July 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “When LUV Took Flight.” Subscribe today.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated Karson Druckamiller is the last original Southwest Airlines employee still on its payroll. He’s one of three original employees still with the company. The story has also been updated to reflect that a little more than a handful of former Purdue Airlines flight attendants were among the first class of Southwest hostesses, rather than “a few.”