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Obituary: Herb Kelleher – pioneer of happy customers and cheap flights

One of the heroes of customer experience died last week and we owe him a tribute. Herb Kelleher was the pioneer of low-cost airlines. He was much more than this because of all the airlines in the world, his was consistently the most profitable and enjoyed the highest levels of customer appreciation.

Like many entrepreneurs, Herb Kelleher didn’t start life in the way he ended up. After studying English he entered the legal profession and intended to start a law firm. Over drinks (he was very fond of them) he hatched a plan with one of his clients to link cities in Texas with a low-cost air service. And like many entrepreneurs, he modeled his business on another airline – Pacific Southwest Airlines. There were many setbacks in getting the company started following legal challenges from competitors. In 1971, after four years of wrangling from other airlines, the company took to the air.

Southwest was able to reduce costs by simplifying its operation. It flew only one type of plane on a limited number of routes, often using cheaper second-tier airports. It stripped out the cost of catering and turned its planes round faster than any other airline at the time. In fact, after only a year of operation Southwest was under attack by lawsuits from competitors and needed to make deep cuts in costs to survive. Its employees cut the turnaround times of its planes from 55 minutes to just 15 minutes.

His staff were motivated to pull off such feats because Kelleher fostered a strong internal culture. While he was serious about making money and working hard, he believed in having fun. In a dispute with a rival company he challenged its boss to an arm wrestling match rather than an expensive legal fight. He turned up at company parties dressed as Elvis. He encouraged his cabin crew to take their job seriously but not themselves.

We tell the story in our book of one of our colleagues who was mid flight with Southwest when a passenger left his seat to go to the bathroom at the back of the plane. The air stewardess stood up in the aisle and told everyone that it was the passenger’s birthday. She asked people to shout “Happy Birthday Jim” as he walked out of the bathroom and returned to his seat. The air stewardess then made Jim a birthday hat out of drinking straws which he proudly wore for the rest of his flight. It is typical of the deep connections Southwest makes with its customers.

Although Herb Kelleher inspired Michael O’Leary of Ryanair to set up a similar low-cost airline, this lesson of customer engagement wasn’t copied. Herb Kelleher was an entrepreneur from another era, but his business approach has many lessons for managers today. He put people first. His staff adored him and never went on strike. They made flying fun and feasible for the millions of customers who chose his airline over others. He was a truly inspirational leader. RIP Herb Kelleher.


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