Herbert D. Kelleher, who co-founded Southwest Airlines and brought low fares and no-frills air travel to the masses, died at the age of 87, the airline said Thursday.
Kelleher, a New Jersey-native and lawyer, founded Southwest in 1967 with pilot Rollin King, to provide short-haul flights in Texas, an idea they sketched out on a cocktail napkin. The airline's first flight took off in June 1971.
The airline eschewed frills like meal service, opting instead for its signature roasted peanuts. Kelleher was conservative with company spending and once joked that "our pilots have accused me of predicting 11 of the last three recessions," according to the book "Nuts! Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success."
"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 enjoyed years profitability unseen by many competitors, some of which endured boom and bust cycles or disappeared altogether. Southwest also enjoyed a strong safety record —Southwest's first on-board passenger fatality came last year.
The airline operated and still flies one type of plane: Boeing 737s. The planes have only one class of service, and the simplified low-cost model Kelleher pioneered was copied by other airlines, several of which Southwest outlived.
"His vision for making air travel affordable for all revolutionized the industry, and you can still see that transformation taking place today," said Southwest's CEO Gary Kelly in a statement. "He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people — and, he kept us laughing all the way. He was an exceptionally gifted man with an enormous heart and love for people — all people."