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Had Gary Kelly paused his ambitious plans to grow Southwest Airlines in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, few would have questioned the call. But the airline’s Chair and CEO forged ahead to add 18 new destinations to Southwest’s network and bolstered the airline’s fleet modernization plan with firm orders for 406 737 MAX airplanes, as of 1 January 2022.
“When a leader like Gary Kelly has confidence in the industry’s recovery, people stop and take notice,” said Stan Deal, President and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “His tenacity and foresight helped re-energize air travel and advance the airline industry.”
Boeing’s relationship with Southwest began when the airline launched operations in 1971, with three Boeing jets flying between San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. Throughout its history, Southwest has flown an all-Boeing fleet, flying 737s almost exclusively. In fact, Southwest was the launch customer in the US for the 737 Classic, Next-Generation 737 and 737 MAX. For over a half-century, Southwest has operated more than 1,000 737s, while benefiting from the strength of a one-model fleet.
At the end of 2021, Southwest’s fleet comprised more than 725 Boeing-built airplanes, flying to 121 destinations throughout the US and 11 other countries. And the airline has stayed at the forefront of modernizing its fleet and reducing fuel use and carbon emissions while increasing operational efficiency and passenger comfort. Many of these achievements took place under Kelly’s nearly two decades as CEO.
Among Kelly’s many accomplishments, he helped make the Southwest name synonymous with exceptional customer service. And in 2022, Southwest is once again on Fortune magazine’s list of the most admired companies in the world. Additionally, as employers worldwide struggle to attract and retain talent during the pandemic, Southwest remains one of the Best Places to Work, according to Glassdoor.
As a leader, Kelly distinguished himself with his people-centric mentality. This focus is on display through the internal culture at Southwest, which is known for bringing a sense of fun and hospitality to air travel.
“If you’ve had the privilege of working with Gary, you know he brings out the best in people,” Deal said. “I have no doubt his collaborative leadership style and the creative culture he advanced at Southwest will be discussed in boardrooms and classrooms for years to come.”
As Kelly transitions from his spot at the helm to the role of Executive Chair, the legacy he leaves behind lives on – far beyond Southwest Airlines.
“He’s influenced our entire industry in immeasurable ways,” Deal said. “And his decision to continue flying an all-Boeing 737 fleet is not something we take for granted. We’ll miss working directly with him, but his leadership will be felt for decades.”