Executive decision making series | Herb Kelleher – for the joy of flying

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Herb Kelleher stands tall amongst the maverick CEOs who have transformed industries by thinking the unimaginable and doing the unthinkable. He developed an alternate vision in commercial aviation and created a whole new class of customers in the airline business, and Southwest Airlines owes its extraordinary success to that unconventional strategy and sticking to it steadfastly.

“They want to get there safely, on time, and with pleasant people.” Herb Kelleher

The brilliance of this plan can be seen in many layers; the short-haul services with point-to-point traffic, the low-cost air service with no frills making it vastly affordable, the focus on the lucrative and busy Texas triangle to start with, the technological interventions in ticketing and reservation systems, and the standardization of aircrafts with a single-type. Nevertheless his legend lies in his mastery in ‘recruiting’ first-time passengers onto a different flying experience, delighting them wholesomely, and in turn building up volumes and expanding the potential market. This template remains a classic in management and business administration.

Kelleher believed in offering a distinct, first-class customer experience and for this he worked backwards to institutionalize an ‘employee-first’ culture. He proved that the intangibles – like corporate culture and customer experience – can be the real competitive advantages, tilting the scales favourably in an intensely competitive business. He could guide the journey and inspire them towards a shared vision. At more than 120 million passengers a year, Southwest Airlines remains the most popular domestic airline in the United States. The credo of his business can be summarized in this quote about his customers – “They want to get there safely, on time, and with pleasant people.”

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28 Dec 2022

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Design Head - Sutra Consulting