Stories from Southwest’s 50 Years

Take a “scroll” through some of the Company’s most iconic stories from the very beginning to today.

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A message from our CEO, Gary Kelly

The year 2021 is a truly significant one for Southwest Airlines—it marks our 50th year of giving travelers the freedom to fly with our low fares and unmatchable Hospitality. My hope is that these stories from our history will inspire you and will be the building blocks of the Southwest Airlines legacy into the next 50 years and beyond.

1967

1967

Herb & Rollin: The Birth of Southwest Airlines®.

Initially, the pitch didn’t just sound far-fetched, it sounded like the stuff quick-fire bankruptcies were made of. Then again, long faces and even longer odds rarely dissuaded the visionary, Rollin King. One afternoon in late 1966, the entrepreneur strode confidently into the San Antonio offices of his lawyer, Herb Kelleher, to double down on a business bet everyone assumed was a losing play.

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1971

1971

Pure Heart: The Evolution of the Southwest Corporate Logo

On June 18, 1971, a Boeing 737 “red bellied warrior” with the Southwest name took off from Love Field in Dallas, carrying its first paying Customers and launching a revolution that democratized the skies.

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1971

1971

Courting Success: Early Southwest Legal Battles

In the summer of 1968, a high-stakes legal drama broke out in an Austin state district court. It was the courtroom equivalent of a barroom brawl. Tempers flared, insults were thrown like right hooks, and there was high drama at every turn.

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1971

1971

Scary Good: Halloween at Southwest

Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly takes a seat. A stylist drapes a black cape over his shoulders and gets to work with brushes, makeup, wigs, and prosthetics. After several hours, Gary inspects the stylist’s work in the mirror. Months of planning have led to this moment. He’s a man transformed. This year, he’s an intergalactic warrior.

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1972

1972

A Turning Point: The Birth of the 10-Minute Turn

$143.

That’s all that was left in Southwest’s bank account in the spring of 1972. Barely enough to pay the daily wages of a single Employee, never mind get an airplane off the ground.

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1972

1972

The Way Things Were: A Texas-Sized Flashback

The Braniff pilots knew their business was in trouble the moment the door to the Cockpit Bar in Dallas swung open and Lamar Muse and Rollin King strode in. The two Leaders of the upstart airline that was causing such a headache over at Braniff bypassed the bar and joined a group of Southwest Airlines regulars: post-shift Dispatchers, Ramp Agents, and Mechanics.

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1973

1973

Fare Play

On an otherwise ordinary morning in February 1973, Southwest President Lamar Muse was paging through one of the local Texas papers. And that’s when he saw it: a full-page ad from Braniff Airlines, a particularly bitter rival that had previously waged a prolonged legal fight to keep Southwest from taking flight.

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1973

1973

Paying It Forward: The Southwest ProfitSharing Plan

Christmas of 1971 was just around the corner—and so were Joy’s money troubles. Joy, a part-time model, had taken a temporary gig managing a Christmas tree lot in Hurst, Texas, to make ends meet. But Christmas trees weren’t a year-round business. When the holidays ended, so did the income she needed to stay afloat.

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1979

1979

The Wright Amendment Cometh

“If a three-aircraft airline can bankrupt an 18,000-acre, 9-miles-long airport, then that airport probably should not have been built in the first place,” Southwest Founder Herb Kelleher told the judge.

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1981

1981

To the Gates! Making Waiting Fun & the Advent of Hospitality

As far as Southwest Gate Agents are concerned, boredom has always been Public Enemy No. 1. Knotty questions can be addressed. Heated complaints can be assuaged. Special requests, more often than not, can be handled. But boredom? That’s simply not allowed anywhere near the departure gate.

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1985

1985

LEADing the Way and the Flight Training Center

In 1986, when Southwest Airlines Founder Herb Kelleher took a spin in a flight simulator, he showed that investing in top-quality training was a priority. And many times since that initial test drive by Herb in the Flight Training Center next to Love Field, other Southwest Leaders have taken a turn in the “sim” and re-affirmed the Company’s commitment to excellent Pilot training.

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1991

1991

To Preserve and Enrich: The Birth of Southwest’s Culture Committee

One morning in 2005, back when Vice President Southwest Airlines University Elizabeth Bryant worked in the People Department, a buzz went through the office: A Team Member who had been out for months to get cancer treatment was finally coming back. In minutes, the local Culture Committee turned it into a celebration. Everybody stopped what they were doing. “We went out to the lobby and the next thing we knew,” Elizabeth said, “we all just lined the hallway to welcome him back.”

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1991

1991

At Your Service: Honoring Our Military Heroes

Let’s try to find ways to say thank you. That was always Founder Herb Kelleher’s guiding principle when it came to recognizing members of the U.S. Military. See them. Respect them. Hire them. Support them. In short, show your gratitude with acts of kindness, large and small, whenever and wherever possible.

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1991

1991

Operation Midway: Preserving Chicago’s Second Airport

In late November 1990, a Team of Southwest Airlines representatives booked a flight to Chicago, hoping for a Thanksgiving miracle. For months, Southwest had been dogged in its attempts to bolster its presence at Chicago’s Midway International Airport (MDW), where it was offering 43 flights per day from just a few jam-packed gates.

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1992

1992

Armed and Dangerous: The Malice in Dallas

What had begun as some gentle ribbing between Stevens Aviation Inc., a general aviation service center, and Southwest Airlines seemed to be escalating…quickly.

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1993

1993

The Ultimate Report Card: The Southwest Effect

Blair, owner of a tour company in Bristol, Connecticut, dialed his print shop in a hurry. They were about to print 350 brochures announcing tours to Nashville for the year 2000, with flights originating in Providence, Rhode Island—nearly two hours away by bus. But Southwest Airlines had just announced plans to open routes from Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, 30 minutes from Bristol.

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1994

1994

The Golden State Showdown: United Shuttle vs. Southwest

Herb Kelleher had no intention of soft-peddling this particular threat. Normally when the then-President & CEO addressed his Employees, he made sure to sprinkle in a healthy dose of humor—a self-effacing quip here, a chuckle-worthy anecdote there—to keep the mood light.

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1994

1994

Bluer Skies: The Great Southwest Uniform Refresh

The dated khakis and slouchy white crew socks were due for retirement. That much became abundantly clear in 2014, when Southwest unveiled its striking new brand identity. The Company’s new Heart logo—striped with sunrise yellow and a warm red—projected a sleekly modern yet soulful look.

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1994

1994

The Southwest Jet Fuel Hedge Strategy

In 1994, Southwest Airlines was growing rapidly, buoyed by expanded routes and rising profits. It was a remarkably sunny stretch for the Company, but the question on many people’s minds—especially the media and its competitors—was how Southwest had managed to cultivate such a hot streak. The Company was generating substantial profits while the rest of the industry was still reeling from the effects of the Gulf War and a subsequent recession.

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1995

1995

Tickets, Please: Southwest in the Internet Age

In the spring of 1994, three of Southwest’s largest competitors—Delta, United, and Continental—launched a coordinated surprise attack on their rival, hoping to muscle it out of the skies.

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1996

1996

Risks and Rewards: The Rapid Rewards® Program

Prior to the summer of 1987, most domestic frequent flyer airline programs were virtually indistinguishable from one another. Similar rewards. Similar mileage-based systems. Slightly different corporate logos.

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1997

1997

Keep ’Em Flying: The Southwest Adopt-a-Pilot® Program

Never underestimate the impact that one dedicated and impassioned Southwest guest teacher can have on a young person’s life. Just ask Flight Attendant Jessica Mitchell, who credits Captain David Childs with single-handedly shaping her future career path.

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1997

1997

Crowns All Around: Southwest Triple Crown

On July 7, 1988, Southwest Airlines received word it had achieved a unique distinction. According to the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Southwest ranked first among domestic airlines in three key metrics: best on-time performance, fewest mishandled bags, and fewest Customer complaints. According to the DOT, this marked the first time a domestic carrier topped all three categories in one month, dating back to when these stats were first tracked in 1987.

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2000

2000

Helping Customers Keep Talent – Southwest and Business Travelers

When a Texas oil and gas company saw its business grow in 2015, it faced a dilemma. As the demands of managing its fields in the Midland area rose, the company’s staff wondered: Would they have to relocate from their homes in Houston? Would they have to move to Midland to keep their jobs? Some of their best drilling engineers, petrophysicists, and geologists were hesitating.

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2000

2000

All in the Family: Southwest’s Internal Customer Care Team

For Michael, running had always been a way of life.

So when he started growing breathless after walking just a few steps, he knew something was seriously wrong. Just three weeks after joining Southwest Airlines in Atlanta in 2013, he was faced with the unthinkable: Stage IV thymic cancer.

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2001

2001

A Shining Light in the Darkest of Hours: Southwest and 9/11

We will do everything in our power to avoid layoffs at Southwest Airlines. That was one of the first vows made on the morning of September 11, 2001, as Southwest Leaders huddled in a makeshift crisis command center at its Dallas Headquarters. Whatever was to come in the hours and months ahead, Southwest would endure it together as one tight-knit Family.

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2004

2004

Duty Calls: The Honor Flight Program

The wounds of war, whether to flesh or soul, are not easily healed. But honoring the bravery, courage, and sacrifice of our veterans is a worthy place to start.

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2005

2005

Parks’ Place: The Last Flight of Rosa Parks

When Rosa Parks, one of the soft-spoken champions of the Civil Rights movement, passed away on October 24, 2005, the nation, as a whole, seemed to rise in her honor.

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2006

2006

Hold on to Your Seats: Southwest Open Seating

First-time Southwest Airlines Customers in the 1970s were welcomed on board with a unique proposition: self-serve, open seating. Your reservation confirmed a seat on the plane . . . you just never knew which one. Some Hostesses (now called Flight Attendants) would quip, “It’s open seating. You can sit anywhere you want—just like at church.”

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2007

2007

Air Care: Southwest’s Medical Transportation Grant Program

Sometimes getting urgent medical care requires more than an ambulance ride to the local hospital. When a little girl in Florida named Wrenn was diagnosed at birth with a potentially deadly condition, reaching treatment several states away was a matter of life and death.

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2007

2007

Recognizing Employees for “Kicking Tail”

Overhauling a corporate culture is difficult. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary when Tonda Ferguson joined Southwest in 1982 as Manager of Employee Communications.

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2007

2007

Social Studies: Social Media the Southwest Way

A Southwest Customer was going to miss her connection home, so she took to Twitter with a gamble. With her flight delayed by weather, she tweeted her wish: Could Southwest hold her connecting flight to Phoenix a few minutes so she could make the connection? Then she added the kicker: If they held her flight, she would bake a pie for them!”

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2008

2008

The Great Recession: Challenges and Triumphs

It had been a 35-year run for Southwest. Thirty-five years of profitability. Thirty-five years of growth, becoming the nation’s largest domestic carrier (in terms of domestic originating passengers) after an underdog start as a small Texas airline.

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2010

2010

Changes in the Air: Atlanta Calling

The Great Recession of 2008-09 posed a grave threat to an already slow period of growth for Southwest Airlines. To Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly, who was also President at the time, 2009 “looked like it was destined to be a losing year” with low demand and the possibility of layoffs. “It was really looking bad,” he admitted.

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2010

2010

Good Timing: Tickets for Time

One day in 2001, Dallas (Love Field) Ramp Agent Bill Baracani received an unexpected invitation from a Coheart at Headquarters that turned out to be really meaningful: Did Bill want to join her in volunteering with the Salvation Army Angel Tree program?

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2014

2014

The Wright Amendment Flies Away

At 12:01 a.m. on October 13, 2014, the countdown clock in the lobby of the Southwest Headquarters building reached zero. For the past year, it had quietly ticked away the minutes and seconds until the Wright Amendment met its end. Shortly after the clock hit zero, Southwest Flight 1013 took off from Dallas, headed for Denver. It was the Company’s first regularly scheduled nonstop service from Love Field outside the boundaries of the Wright Amendment’s restrictions.

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2014

2014

Our Heart Livery

Southwest has never earned—nor sought—a reputation for operating airplanes that look inconspicuous on a runway. Over the years, the decision to select paint colors with names such as “desert gold” or “canyon blue” has, if nothing else, produced the most distinctive and recognizable airplane fleet in North America.

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2014

2014

Something Old, Something New: The Southwest Repurpose with Purpose Program

The giant heaps of gently wrinkled leather could easily have been labeled “trash” and sent on their way.

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2014

2014

Island Paradise: Launch of International

We’re surrounded by too much white space. That was the general consensus as Southwest surveyed its route map in the wake of the Great Recession in the late 2000s.

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2017

2017

To the Rescue: The Hurricane Harvey Pet Lift

As Hurricane Harvey scythed its way across southeast Texas in August 2017, an urgent SOS went out to Southwest from, of all places, an animal shelter in California. The call came from a trusted Partner, the Helen Woodward Animal Center near San Diego.

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2017

2017

After the Storm: The Hurricane Harvey Rescue Mission

More than anything else, air travelers need to know—with absolute certainty—they are flying on an airline that prioritizes safety and genuinely cares about them. That’s always been one of Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly’s guiding philosophies and chief directives to the People of Southwest Airlines: Show Customers that you care.

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2019

2019

Pure Aloha: Southwest Goes to Hawaii

It was the one question that refused to go away. Over the years, it had been asked so often by so many different people you’d have sworn Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly was caught in some kind of time loop. “Gary,” Employees and reporters would ask with an undercurrent of genuine hope in their voices, “will Southwest ever fly to Hawaii?”

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2020

2020

The Future of Corporate Culture: Evolving and Being a Trailblazer

In Southwest’s early years, Founder Herb Kelleher and President Emeritus Colleen Barrett had faced seemingly endless hurdles—legally and operationally—pretty much on all fronts. As former Senior Vice President Culture & Communications Ginger Hardage recalled, “The incredible thing that Herb and Colleen set up from the very beginning was active involvement of all Employees.”

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2020

2020

Flying Through a Pandemic

As 2020 dawned, Southwest was poised for another banner year. But in less than a month, everything changed. January brought reports of a dangerous new virus spreading rapidly around the globe, one that would dramatically impact life as we know it. In particular, it brought the travel and tourism industry to a near-standstill, affecting every related business, from hotels to entertainment events to restaurants, and, of course, airlines.

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2021

2021

Higher Education: SWA University

Imagine starting your new job like a Hollywood star arriving at a film premiere. You are greeted by a crowd cheering your entrance as you sweep in on a red carpet to your Employee orientation. Far-fetched? Nope, it’s a standard opening day at Southwest Airlines University (SWA U).

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2021

2021

Heroes of the Heart

Southwest is exceedingly proud of our Customer-facing Employees who often get well-deserved attention and accolades, but so many Employees work tirelessly behind the scenes. In response, under the auspices of the Companywide Culture Committee, Colleen Barrett created Heroes of the Heart to celebrate a behind-the-scenes Team or workgroup rather than an individual.

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