Joe Bob's America

Herb Kelleher and the Flying Bus

January 10, 2019

Herb Kelleher and the Flying Bus

NEW YORK—My only conversation with Herb Kelleher happened in the mid-’70s, before he was famous, when he hunted me down through my editor at Texas Monthly magazine to find out how I felt about the emergency landing in Waco.

I had been on a Southwest Airlines flight from San Antonio to Dallas, and halfway there the pilot informed us that the plane had a problem and we would be making an unplanned landing. That wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was the crash-landing procedure, which involved putting your head between your legs while crew members went to the exit rows and gave out instructions for opening the emergency doors and deploying those puffy slides that supposedly make it possible for you to plunge off the plane without injury.

Let me set this scene, though. Flight attendants at the time were called stewardesses, and Southwest being the flashy businessman’s airline that it was, the stewardesses were all attractive women in their 20s wearing high-heeled go-go boots and what were popularly known as hot pants, later “Daisy Dukes,” thanks to the performance of Catherine Bach on The Dukes of Hazzard. If you’re not familiar with the style, think Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, the kind of short-shorts that ride so low on the hip they look like they could fall off at any moment. We were plummeting to our possible deaths with a safety crew made up of cheerleaders, sorority girls, and fashion models with perfect manicures and teased hair, dressed like they were making a music video for Nancy Sinatra’s version of “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

You weren’t supposed to look out the window—we had strict instructions to remain in the hunched-over position throughout the landing—but I cheated. I watched it all the way down, which was disconcerting because all I was seeing was scrubland, cross timbers, mesquite brush, stock tanks, and cow ponds. As we got lower and lower—the approach probably took ten minutes, but it seemed like a half hour—three or four of the passengers started to cry, including a woman with a young baby, and then a woman at the back of the plane started to wail. One of the Daisy Dukes girls was on her like a rifle shot, stroking her hair and telling her to take deep breaths, and then, suddenly, a ribbon of concrete appeared underneath us and we touched down as fire trucks and emergency response vehicles swarmed around the plane and a broad-shouldered cowboy went ahead and jerked out his emergency door—he had been up on his feet long before the plane stopped rolling.

The fire trucks sprayed some white stuff on the engines as we were told to stay on board—apparently the emergency slides wouldn’t be needed—and five minutes later it was all over. The pilot had seen an instrument reading indicating that an engine was on fire. Whether it was actually on fire or the instrument was faulty, I never found out. I was just happy to be standing on the tarmac in Waco. One thing that happens when you have a perceived near-death experience is that everyone becomes family. We were talking, hugging, sharing impressions. Too bad we didn’t have barbecue and Shiner beer, it could have been the greatest impromptu Texas party ever.

“Thanks for writing this letter,” said Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest, when he got me on the phone.

I had written a letter praising the crew response.

“How scary was it?” he wanted to know.

And I told him it was a good bit less scary because the stewardesses kept talking and taking people through the landing procedures and taking everyone’s mind off the dread of what might be about to happen. They were obviously more concerned with passenger safety than with their own.

“There were times in the early ’70s when a flight from Dallas to Houston was a flat $20.”

“That’s good to know. We’ve got good people. I’ve got people suing me, though.”

Apparently there were some “mental distress” lawsuits. I told Herb I would be happy to give a deposition about the professionalism of the girls in the orange hot pants. And then we talked about the Boeing 737.

Herb Kelleher, who died last week at the age of 87, loved the 737. As airplanes go, it was the least glamorous vessel ever built. It was noisy, ugly, and cramped. The first ones, developed in the ’60s using specs written by Lufthansa for short hauls around Europe, looked like cigars that had been half smoked and then stubbed out on a telephone pole. When they first started landing at Love Field in the early ’70s, they would shake apartment buildings to their foundations and drown out the sound on any television within a half mile of the runway. The 737 was a workhorse that had just two things going for it: You could run it cheap and you could run it fast. It became the only plane that Southwest—now 48 years old—would ever fly.

Southwest became one of the most popular and admired airlines in the world through a simple idea: Let’s not compete with Pan American Airways, which serves lobster and champagne to the VIPs of the planet; let’s compete with Greyhound. There were times in the early ’70s when a flight from Dallas to Houston was a flat $20, and you could just show up at the airport ten minutes before takeoff and hand the gate attendant the twenty-dollar bill.

Herb Kelleher had started an airline revolution that continues to this day, and it was made possible by two developments—the deregulation of fares and routes, and the 737. When Kelleher started Southwest, he was able to avoid all federal regulations by flying only within the borders of the state of Texas. At first Southwest flew only between Dallas and Houston, then added San Antonio, using one plane per city. By 1980 he had expanded the route system to include eight other Texas cities plus New Orleans, but the principles of his regional success were firmly established:

Numero Uno: Economy class only. At Southwest this meant no reserved seats. Whoever got in line first got the seat of his choice.

Numero Two-o: The ten-minute turnaround. Southwest would land, taxi, deplane passengers, board passengers, taxi, and take off, all within a ten-minute window.

Numero Three-o: Using small airports that had been abandoned by the major airlines. In Texas this meant Love Field in Dallas and Hobby Airport in Houston. All the legacy airlines in Dallas—American, Delta, United, Continental, Braniff, Northwest, Eastern—had signed an agreement to use the new Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport, built halfway between the two cities, thereby abandoning Love Field and Meacham Field and assuming those urban airports would be used only for private planes, military flights, and cargo flights. Since Kelleher hadn’t signed the agreement, he simply took over Love Field—far more convenient for Dallas travelers than the remote DFW—and proceeded to endure twenty years of legal wrangling and an actual act of Congress, called the Wright Amendment, that prevented him from scheduling a flight of more than 500 miles out of that hub. The ban on long-haul Southwest flights—which simply added to Kelleher’s maverick reputation, since it was obviously the big boys ganging up on him—was not repealed until 2014.

Numero Four-o: No amenities except for bags of peanuts, which he tied into his “Peanuts Fare” advertising campaign. It’s a campaign that lasted 47 years, finally ending last summer amid complaints from peanut-allergy sufferers.

Numero Five-o: Using a one-size-fits-all fleet, which in this case meant the Boeing 737, so that maintenance costs and pilot training costs are a fraction of what other airlines spend.

Although Kelleher and his CEO, Lamar Muse, were credited with starting the regional revolution, they had actually stolen the playbook of Pacific Southwest Airlines, which had been doing the same thing in California for two decades. Based in San Diego, Pacific Southwest was the first discount airline, founded in 1949 by Kenny Friedkin with a single DC-3 that hopped from San Diego to Burbank to Oakland and then back down the coast, using the advertising slogan “The World’s Friendliest Airline.” They later added Sacramento service (just as Kelleher would add service to the Texas capital of Austin), but they pretty much stuck to their formula of shuttling business travelers between the big cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco on the weekdays, then discounting the fares even more on Saturday and Sunday to get vacationing students and weekend-getaway tourists.

Over the next three decades many entrepreneurs would successfully copy the Pacific Southwest/Southwest Airlines formula of finding underserved city pairs, then developing a route system of short-haul budget travel. The business plan was emulated by Dublin-based Ryanair in 1984, which began with a single plane flying Waterford to London, then became the largest budget carrier in Europe. EasyJet followed the same scheme in 1995, using two 737s to fly from London’s lightly used Luton Airport to Glasgow and Edinburgh, eventually turning Luton into the European headquarters of budget airlines. Calgary-based WestJet applied the formula in western Canada in 1996, flying to Edmonton, Kelowna, Vancouver, and Winnipeg with 737s, then copying the Dallas–Houston–San Antonio “ten-minute turnaround” triangle with its own Toronto–Ottawa–Montreal triangle. AirAsia, based in Kuala Lumpur, broke the pattern slightly when it switched to the main competitor of the 737, the Airbus 320, but otherwise it was the Southwest Airlines of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand. IndiGo did the same thing in 2006, flying the same planes out of New Delhi. JetStar, based in Melbourne, used the formula for short-haul destinations in Australia and New Zealand, again using the Airbus 320-200.

All over the world, airlines were discovering what Herb Kelleher knew in the ’60s, that what most customers wanted was a flying bus. They would sacrifice the food service and the fancy seats if you gave them a good price. And if the plane was sometimes full and 35 of us were cursed with the middle seat, people were willing to suffer as long as you acknowledged their suffering. How did Herb do that? By filling the plane with comedy, games, and high jinks. I’m not sure this stuff would have worked if the airline hadn’t started in Texas—other parts of the country tend to be more sedate—but passengers became fond of the wisecracking flight attendants, who would sometimes say, “I’ve got two free tickets for the first person who gives me a dollar bill with a serial number that starts with the numbers three-seven.”

Even the boring preflight announcements became a carnival show as Herb promoted a “we’re all in this together” feeling among the budget travelers:

“There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only four ways off this aircraft.”

“Pushing the light-bulb button will turn your reading light on. However, pushing the flight-attendant button will not turn your flight attendant on.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to smoke, the smoking section is on the wing, and if you can light ’em, you can smoke ’em.”

“Your seat cushions can be used for flotation, and in the event of an emergency water landing, please take them with our compliments.”

“Southwest is pleased to have some of the best flight attendants in the industry. Unfortunately none of them are on this flight.”

It was also the tradition at Southwest to always acknowledge turbulence and bumpy landings:

“Welcome to Amarillo. Please remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened while the captain taxis what’s left of our plane to the gate.”

“Please remain in your seats until Captain Crash and the Crash Crew have brought the aircraft to a screeching halt against the gate. Once the smoke has cleared and the warning bells have been silenced, we’ll open the door and you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal.”

It’s the kind of stuff you say when you’re trapped on a bus. Herb Kelleher was from New Jersey, but he always said the best thing he ever did in life was move to Texas. He would have gotten along well with my daddy, who coached girls’ basketball, taught eighth-grade history, and drove a school bus 120 miles a day for the kids who lived on ranches in Lamb County, Texas. When the kids got bored and the bus got rowdy, he would pick an older girl and say, “Start singing ‘Gimme That Old Time Religion,’ and if they don’t like that one, teach ’em a drinking song.”

Herb always understood that Texas state of mind, and he exported it all over the world.

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