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Footnotes in Texas History

Good on Paper

Fueled by booze and a legendary cocktail napkin, Southwest Airlines took off and never looked back

Illustration by Sarah Ferone

This legendary story starts off like many good stories do: Two men walked into a bar.

They were in San Antonio, and this was more than 55 years ago. And, OK, it was actually a restaurant with a bar. They ordered drinks and perhaps hors d’oeuvres. As the story goes, one of the men grabbed a cocktail napkin, took out his pen and said to the other, “Here’s the plan.”

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Texas Co-op Power · Southwest Airlines

 

He then drew a simple triangle on the napkin. At the apex of the triangle he wrote “Dallas.” The bottom left he labeled “San Antonio.” And on the remaining corner: “Houston.”

“There—that’s the business plan,” he said. “Fly between these cities several times a day, every day.” And that is the tale of how Southwest Airlines began, on a simple napkin in a bar in San Antonio in 1966. The two men were Rollin King and Herb Kelleher.

King was a pilot and businessman and Kelleher a lawyer. King would become a managing director of the company that he and Kelleher co-founded in March 1967 and that first took to the sky in June 1971. Kelleher would go on to serve as CEO from 1981 to 2001. At the Southwest headquarters at Dallas Love Field, there’s a bronze replica of the original napkin and a plaque with this exchange: “Herb, let’s start an airline.” “Rollin, you’re crazy. Let’s do it!”

Beyond the sizzle, there was genuine business genius in Southwest’s efficiencies: peanut fares and the 10-minute turnaround, which had never been achieved before. To date, Southwest has flown more than 2 billion passengers without a crash and now serves more than 100 destinations in the U.S. and 10 countries.

Perhaps the coolest story in Southwest Airlines’ history, and relatively unknown, was its fare war with now-defunct Braniff Airlines in early 1973—only a year after a struggling Southwest had just $143 in its bank account. Braniff offered $13 fares for its Houston-Dallas route as a means of “breaking” the upstart airline.

Southwest responded by offering passengers a $13 fare or a $26 fare that included a free bottle of Chivas scotch, Crown Royal whiskey or Smirnoff vodka. According to airline lore, for the two months before Braniff surrendered, Southwest was Texas’ biggest distributor of premium liquor as business travelers expensed the $26 tickets and kept the booze for themselves.

Not long before he died in June 2014, King confessed that the napkin story wasn’t entirely true but that it was a “hell of a good story.”

It was too late: The myth had become more powerful than the reality.

As the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.