Southwest Airlines Founder Herb Kelleher passed away on Thursday, the airline announced.
Kelleher was 87 and, according to legend, created the concept for the low-cost carrier on the back of a cocktail napkin in San Antonio along with another co-founder of the airline.
“A giant like that, you never think for some reason that they'll ever die,” said Denny Kelly, a retired commercial airline captain.
FOX 4 spoke to Kelleher when he retired as chairman of the low-cost carrier in 2008. Kelleher was always the jokester.
“If my eyes are red, it wasn't because I was crying during that presentation,” he joked. “I just have a hangover.”
Southwest launched in 1971 after Kelleher and Texas businessman Rollin King famously created the concept of a Texas regional carrier on a cocktail napkin at a San Antonio restaurant.
Kelly, then a pilot for Braniff Airlines, had a chance encounter with Kelleher at the San Antonio airport just six months before the first Southwest plane took flight. Kelly and two other Braniff pilots were in uniform having lunch.
“He said, ‘I am starting an airline, and it's going to be the biggest thing going. And I want you guys, some experienced pilots, to work for us,’” Kelly recalled. “We thought he was nuts. We were flying back to Dallas saying that guy's crazy. That's gonna last 6 months to a year. We didn’t even think about it.”
Kelleher would end up proving Kelly and the rest of the skeptics wrong.
Two years after taking off, Southwest turned a profit and hasn't suffered a money-losing year since. It’s a streak unmatched in the U.S. airline business.
“He was a giant in the airline industry, but he was just a regular guy,” Kelly said.
Southwest's marketing campaigns were unconventional and got attention by getting laughs. 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, and it operated out of less-congested secondary airports, like Dallas Love Field, to avoid money burning delays.
“That was one of his innovations,” Kelly said. “He went to smaller, out of the way airports in major markets. They weren't as crowded and, consequently, he didn't have to charge as much.”
For years, Kelleher battled politics and the Wright Amendment that restricted where southwest could fly. The restrictions that were eventually lifted.
“I'm Lucky Herby for having all of these years with all of you who've been the wellspring of my business
life for so long and have been such wonderful, beautiful people to be with,” Kelleher said in 2008. “I have consistently described the people of Southwest Airlines as my fountain of youth. And I know I look like a Basset Hound, but I’m still young inside. And I drink Oil of Olay, and I want to thank all of those people."
In a statement, the airline said Kelleher was a "pioneer, a maverick, and an innovator." Kelleher helped make the Dallas-based airline into an industry icon -- from its low fares, flight attendants in hot pants in the 1970s and its unique boarding system with unassigned seats.
"Herb's passion, zest for life, and insatiable investment in relationships made lasting and immeasurable impressions on all who knew him and will forever be the bedrock and esprit de corps of Southwest Airlines," the airline said.
The airline Kelleher launched now employs 58,000 workers and carries 120 million passengers each year.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.