This is a story about growing old in the air with a man that I never met personally, but knew what a revered individual he was within the Southwest Organization, the Airline Industry and with the millions of Customers he moved through the air each and every day – Mr. Herb Kelleher.
I’ve been fortunate to work in the Airline Industry even though it was as a Reservations Agent with both America West which is now part of American Airlines and with Alaska Airlines of which I enjoyed immensely and was able to enjoy the benefits of flying while earning my way through under graduate college at Grand Canyon University and later at graduate school.
One of my first flights was back in the early eighties from Boise, ID with a United Airlines in San Francisco and onto Honolulu, HI as I had finished my two-year associate degree at Boise State University and ready to explore the world as Christopher Columbus did in 1492. This was at a time when smoking was allowed in the plane, of course there was a non-smoking section and a smoking section with no barrier except the row designations. YES, what could possibly go wrong at 35,000 feet with passengers celebrating with alcohol and cigarettes towards the back of the airship. I still remember the ashtrays on the armrests of many flights I’ve taken years after smoking on an airplane was banned and declared illegal even in the restroom of an aircraft.
For the last twenty years I’ve been flying regularly for the various tire representative positions I’ve held since graduating with my MBA from Thunderbird, American School of Global Management in Glendale, AZ. A majority of these flights in the beginning were on Southwest Airlines. In the beginning of my career I was with Michelin and their corporate office was in Greenville, SC which is Delta territory and I was based in Greenville for my first six months traveling to Mexico City, Savannah, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago and Las Vegas. I then took a territory sales position in the Phoenix area and traveled to Salt Lake City and Vegas quite a bit using America West or US Airways or whatever they called themselves at that time. Their fares began to continuously increase and I looked for an alternative and that is when I became acquainted with Herb Kelleher or shall I say the airline he founded – Southwest the LUV Airline.
I was offered a Marketing Position with Michelin and transferred back to corporate in Greenville, SC and so again, I was weaned off Southwest and back to Delta more by schedule and travel routes rather than personal preference as I had instantly fell in love with the LUV Airline and their personnel and or employees who made air travel tolerable and sometimes downright fun and enjoyable. From the reservation agents of whom I once was, so I know a few of the jerks that they regularly deal with, as well as the hurried person, a customer who has lost a loved one or had a relative or friend involved in a tragic accident and needs the help of a caring agent who will try their darnedest to make sure they find the quickest route with as much affordability as can be attained.
A few years later I went to work for Continental Tire based out of Charlotte, NC and was able to make my way back to the Valley of the Sun of where I managed an Industrial tire territory of 13 Western States and Mexico and was traveling quite often, opting to fly Southwest on every route from Phoenix (PHX) to a city that it serviced of which I needed to visit – AUS, RNO, SEA, PDX, SJC, ONT, BOI, GEG, BUR, DEN, ELP, SFO, LAX, SMF, LAS, TUS, ABQ, SLC and to meetings in CLT, FLL, PVD, HOU, GSP, LIT, and MSY; It was with Continental Tire that I first became an A List member and received 25% bonus points on Southwest flights. I’ve been with Southwest through its ground-breaking industry changes from taking so many flights on earning a reward flight and as long as there was a seat on that 737 you could claim that vacant seat no matter what the last-minute price. Southwest Airlines have a great policy for when needs arise to change business or vacation plans of only having to pay the difference of the fare price. No expensive change fees such as American has which are $200.00 at the onslaught, plus the difference in the fare. This is another great reason why my traveling co-workers and I use Southwest Airlines as customer emergencies arise quite regularly and the savings to our employer is astronomical year after year for flight changes.
In 2010 I completed my first novel, the best-selling, award winning My Bad Tequila at 37,000 feet in the air on a 737 flight from Phoenix, AZ to Portland, OR. A great deal of my writing had been in the air as it relaxed me and made for quite quick flights when engrossed in creating a story on the laptop.
Now as an author, I used Southwest Airlines to tour for my book signings as I coincided my sales travels with at least one book signing per week in the various cities I visited and gave book marks which displayed my various novels to the Southwest flight attendants, who to my good fortune were largely avid readers.
January 2010 arrived and I went to work as a Sales Manager for a Tire Repair and Tool Manufacturer – REMA Tip Top with its corporate office based in Northvale, New Jersey and manufacturing plant in Madison, GA so again, much travel to EWR, ATL, DTW, MDW, LGA, BOS, OKC, STL, MCI, MSP, and every single location that Southwest operated a terminal in the Western 13 states.
Herb most importantly realized and created the recipe for keeping his employees happy by allowing them to have fun while working and they in turn will pass that inner and outer smile onto their passenger client base. If there is one thing other CEOs and Managers of other organizations can take from Southwest is that in order to have a tasty and fulfilling team, sprinkle some Herb into your dry conglomerate.
Also, every year I received a signed birthday card from my Amigo – Herb Kelleher and his airline Southwest. I proudly put it up on display each year with my other birthday cards from family and friends.
March 2015 arrives and I have accepted a Sales Manager position with Double Coin Tire based in Monrovia, CA and again my territory is the 13 Western States and El Paso, TX, so flights to all locations in the West and sales meetings in FLL, BNA, JAX, DAL using Southwest Airlines almost exclusively. Southwest then enters the Mexico market and I’ve been a Caboholic for over eight years and can now fly to Cabo San Lucas, using my earned points for free travel to one of my favorite destinations, and my wife Connie travels with me for free as I’ve earned the Companion Pass for the last two years.
Southwest Airlines was instrumental in helping me achieve my Ph.D. of Tequila, attained in San Francisco, CA as I began my quest in 2011 and passed my tasting and written tests in 2016. This doctorates degree was earned over a five-year period and drinking and identifying over 70 different tequilas of Mexico. I would usually fly Southwest into OAK or SFO airports and take the BART train into San Francisco, drink, study and sightsee, then fly back home to Phoenix or another work destination.
Even our trip to London and Paris this last summer began and ended with a Southwest flight from Phoenix to San Franciso before boarding a non-stop jet into Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic.
In November of 2018 I’d finally accomplished the pinnacle of membership with Southwest Airlines, over 50 flights in a calendar year to earn the designation A-List Preferred and getting to earn 100% additional points on all flights in 2019 as I had a total of 53 flights on Southwest during the 2018 year and earned another Companion Pass earlier in the year to keep the wife on the pleasant side of life and me.
My last flight with Herb and his airline was on Dec. 12th, 2018 from Seattle to Phoenix returning to my home in Scottsdale, AZ;
I heard of the passing of Herb on facebook January 4th and began writing my story of why the death of a CEO and Founder of a Company, a person I had never met had saddened me as if losing a close friend. Herb Kelleher, I felt as if I knew him through his employees, through the culture of his airline, through his smile and messages I’d seen hundreds of times in the Southwest Magazine.
As I finish this story on the 6th, I’ve already checked in for my flight tomorrow morning January 7th from Phoenix to Sacramento on flight #1012. A pleasant, yet sad nostalgia feeling envelopes me as I see that my boarding pass is position A02 A-List Business Select as I think of Herb Kelleher RIP.
There are two vacation trips I have planned and already booked in Mexico. Both trips, each to Cabo San Lucas (SJD) in February and to Cancun (CUN) in May. I’m very fortunate to use my Rapid Rewards points to make for a affordable, enjoyable and memorable getaway. While in the air on both of these vacation trips I will order a Tequila and Bloody Mary Mix using my Southwest Airline Drink Coupons and silently raise my plastic, filled cup to Herb, the airline legend who took his last departure from Earth on January 3rd, 2019;
By Rico Austin Ph.D., Rapid Rewards Member #101-------
*Rico Austin’s books can all be viewed and purchased on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com and everywhere fine books are sold. www.ricoaustin.com
Rico, thank you for sharing your story. We're thrilled to know we've had a reliable friend in you for decades and are honored to have your patronage. We will all miss Herb immeasurably, and we're all better for having known him. If you happen to be inflight today, we hope you'll raise a glass of his favorite Wild Turkey in honor of his birthday. If not, it sounds like you're good for tequila!