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Herb Kelleher’s magic

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The magic of Herb Kelleher, who died Jan. 3 aged 87, was that there was no magic. It’s simply the story of an extraordinarily smart lawyer spotting a market opportunity, working relentlessly hard to turn it from a cocktail-napkin idea into a highly successful business, and adhering to genuinely held principles of being a decent, kind human being.

It’s the last part that made Southwest Airlines seem like a conjurer’s trick that so many other airline CEOs have sought to repeat.

Kelleher’s mantra, however, was deceptively simple and ingeniously novel in the airline industry of the 1970s: Under-sell and over-deliver.

Until Southwest came along, airline ads and marketing campaigns brandished brass-star promises of luxurious, blissful transport accompanied by cocktails, fine wines, gourmet dining and—most of all—a comfortable, dream-inducing ride.

Even in the global air transport industry’s rarified days when commercial flying was affordable only to the wealthy, this was a conceit. Today, it may occasionally be a truth in the first- and business-class cabins of some airlines. For the vast majority of the traveling public, however, flying is a bus ride at 30,000ft.

But Herb was honest about that winged bus ride and he made it okay, even fun sometimes. Commercial flight on Southwest, with its cost disciplines, high productivity and low fares, transformed the industry into an affordable, incredibly safe way to get to places and work and to see family and friends not possible before flying became widely accessible.

Southwest's only promises were that it would get you where you wanted to go, let you pick your seat, check your bag without a fee and change your ticket without a change fee. And then it would throw in the extras--a bag of peanuts, a plastic cup of soda and a friendly gate agent, flight attendant or pilot empowered to make the right calls.

Because Herb looked after his People, so they looked after each other and took care of their customers. And the customers, returning again and again, took care of the business.

Herb made it look so easy. But it never was. It still isn’t. Ask any airline CEO.

Karen.walker@informa.com

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