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Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines founder, dies at 87

January 4, 2019 GMT

The legendary founder of Southwest Airlines died Thursday, the airline said in a statement. Herb Kelleher was 87.

We already miss you, Herbie. #HonoringHerb pic.twitter.com/SQcvSdkbC2 Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) January 3, 2019

“We already miss you, Herbie,” the airline tweeted with a photo of Mr. Kelleher giving a salute. “Honoring Our Founder and Friend” the photo caption read, along with his dates of birth and death.

Over a period of 40 years, Mr. Kelleher built a small carrier that flew a handful of Boeing 737s between three Texas cities Dallas, Houston and San Antonio into the nation’s largest and most-profitable domestic airline.

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Despite the waves of consolidation and repeated bankruptcies that have affected the U.S. airline industry since the early 1980s deregulation, Southwest has turned a profit every year of its existence based on Mr. Kelleher’s unorthodox business model.

“Herb was a pioneer, a maverick, and an innovator,” the company said in a statement. “His vision revolutionized commercial aviation and democratized the skies. 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.”

Southwest became known for specializing in direct routes rather than hubs, only using 737s to keep down costs, eschewing high-prestige international routes, and for a “tongue-in-cheek” culture among the stewards and pilots.

“Employees came first. Employees first, customers second, shareholders third. If the employees serve the customer well, the customer comes back, and that makes the shareholders happy,” Mr. Kelleher once told CNBC in an interview. “It’s simple. It’s not a conflict, it’s a chain.”

Even though Mr. Kelleher stepped away from Southwest in 2008, he remained a Texas icon and a big part of the corporation’s culture.

“I always turned down pay increases, bonus increases, to set a good example for all of our people,” he told CNBC in 2017. “Of course, the stock that I got rose enormously in value, but that was in lieu of cash compensation. It’s what I thought was a requirement of good leadership.”

He estimated in that interview that Southwest is now worth $20 billion; it was founded with $500,000 in seed money.

“The air service at that time in Texas was a very poor quality and the prices were very high,” he said. “We wanted to set Texans free because they were captive. There were monopolies in Texas in the air and we were out to destroy them.”

There was no immediate word on funerals or memorials.

He was married to the former Joan Negley and the couple have four children.