As Dallas-based Southwest Airlines prepares to celebrate its 40th birthday, CEO Gary Kelly tells the story of the carrier's rocky start.
"There was every imaginable obstacle, so it took years of litigation just to fly. The big airlines ganged up on Southwest. We had just three airplanes at that time," Kelly said.
That didn't last long. Under the leadership of Herb Kelleher, Southwest grew from a small Texas-only airline to a coast-to-coast giant.
From three planes in 1971, Southwest now has 551. From 180,000 passengers a year in its early years, it now carries more than 88 million.
Southwest's success was fueled by low fares. It also built a unique corporate culture, known for showering its passengers and employees with affection.
Kelly says there is more growth to come. He recently closed a mega-deal for Southwest to buy AirTran Airways.
"AirTran allows us to expand our route map by about 20-25%. In particular, we pick up Atlanta," Kelly said.
In 2011, every airline faces high fuel prices, intense competition and often cranky fliers. But Kelly says those are not the biggest threats to Southwest.
"If you said what's the single biggest issue or problem that could affect our future, I would say it would be losing our culture. We're not going to, though, because all of our employees care so much about it," Kelly says.