Southwest Airlines has promoted EVP-strategy and innovation Tom Nealon to the role of president and expanded COO Mike Van de Ven’s responsibilities.

The moves suggest chairman and CEO Gary Kelly, who had also held the title of president, will be stepping back from day-to-day operational management of the Dallas-based airline. Southwest said in a statement that “Kelly’s focus will be in external areas including political, governmental and industry affairs; investor relationships; and community affairs and outreach; and internally on employee and culture activities.” [UPDATE: Kelly said the executive suite shuffle does not mean his successor has been chosen or that he will be ceding responsibility for the company's direction anytime soon.]

Kelly, who has been Southwest’s top executive for 12 years, said in a statement, “It is important for us to evolve our leadership structure as part of our ongoing succession planning process.”

Nealon will report directly to Kelly and have responsibility over Southwest’s commercial, finance, technology and corporate strategy departments, the airline said. Nealon was Southwest’s chief information officer from 2002-2006 and rejoined the airline last year. He has been group EVP at retailer JC Penney and also was VP and chief information officer at Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of Pepsi Co.

Southwest said Van de Ven will report to Kelly and expand his responsibilities by adding customer support and services and hospitality to his current responsibilities overseeing ground, flight and technical operations, labor relations and operational strategy and performance. He has been with Southwest since 1993.

Aaron Karp aaron.karp@penton.com