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Airline industry is set to lose a leading light

While it will go unnoticed by most, tomorrow marks the end of an era in U.S. commercial aviation.

On Wednesday, May 21, Herb Kelleher, one of Southwest's co-founders and its very public face for more than 30 years, will step down as the airline's chairman.

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Since 1971, Kelleher has piloted the prototypical low-cost carrier through good times and bad, prospering through airline deregulation, recessions, crises related to fuel prices and terrorism, and so on.

Dozens of other discount airlines have come and gone in that time. Many of them assumed that Southwest's low-cost, point-to-point model was simple, and could be easily copied as a blueprint for success and profitability. They were proven wrong.

Under Kelleher's leadership, Southwest has grown to become one of the largest U.S. airlines, and arguably the most successful, racking up the industry's longest unbroken series of profitable quarters in recent history.

Just as Southwest's history and Kelleher's are linked, so are the personalities of the airline and its chief.

The jokey amiability that has come to epitomize Southwest, and endear it to many travelers, is a direct reflection of Kelleher's own personality, which he modeled for Southwest employees in his frequent visits to stations throughout the airline's network.

In an industry notoriously riven by labor-management discord, the cigarette-smoking, Wild Turkey-swilling Kelleher used his outsized sense of humor and disarming plain-spokenness to fashion a company in which top management and frontline workers truly seemed to be pulling in the same direction.

Over the years, there has been grumbling about Southwest's cattle-car persona, the bare-bones service, the hokey ads. But Southwest has done one thing supremely well: They've managed customer expectations. Service that would be deemed deplorable on another carrier is perceived as not only acceptable on Southwest, but fun. That's no accident.

In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, Kelleher spoke directly to the role expectations management has played in Southwest's success. "I think Southwest Airlines has been a great example of that historically and now as well. We've always been very up front, frank and forward about what we offer. We have not over-promised. We've under-promised and over-delivered, in effect, provided more for less since we started, and I think people appreciate that, the straightforwardness of it, the honesty of it, the integrity of it."

Donning his humorist's hat later in the same interview, Kelleher explained his reason for resigning as Southwest's chairman as follows: "(T)he board told me I had to get a face lift or resign, so I decided to resign. Heh, heh, heh."

Finally, looking ahead, Kelleher likened today's environment for airlines to that of 1993 to 1994, when Southwest took advantage of other carriers' financial distress to expand in California and at Chicago's Midway Airport. He sees similar opportunities in the current climate: "I think potentially—potentially because you can never be sure—as the industry contracts in economic agony as the result of jet fuel prices, that you may find that Southwest has a substantial number of new opportunities opening up before it." (I wrote about Southwest's predatory opportunism here.)

Kelleher's replacement as chairman will be announced at Southwest's shareholder meeting on Wednesday. We should all keep our expectations in check. Because whoever it is, he (or she) won't be another Herb.

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