The Man Who Made Air Travel Better Has Died

The familiar colors of Southwest Airlines, at Las Vegas airport (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Almost everything that is “positive” about the modern air-travel experience, is positive thanks to Southwest Airlines. Upbeat staff and crew attitude, straightforward rather than hyper-opaque pricing, even the more-or-less egalitarian boarding process—these are all associated with Southwest.

In the past few years, Southwest’s on-time performance has declined to just-average, and in 2018 it had its first-ever fatal accident aboard one of its (in which one person died; back in 2005, a Southwest plane skidded off the runway when landing in a snowstorm at Midway airport, and killed one person on the ground).  Still, when I have the choice—which is to say, when Southwest goes where I want to go—I have a bias toward Southwest.

Two Texans, in 2007. Herb Kelleher at left. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

In 1971, when he had just turned 40, Herb Kelleher co-founded Southwest. (And what have you done recently?) In the summer of 1975, when the airline was still getting going — and when I was working, based in Austin, for the then-fledgling Texas Monthly magazine — I did a cover story about Kelleher, his vision for air travel, and the “Great Texas Airline Wars” of that era, which Kelleher’s Southwest ultimately won.

The story, again, is here. If there are things that seem out of date—hey, it was during the Gerald Ford administration, and when I reported and wrote it I was 25.

I really enjoyed knowing Herb Kelleher. He died today, at age 87. RIP—and travel well, in his honor.