Item From the Past: The Day I Drank With Herb Kelleher
On February 25, 1986, I went to the Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel on West End Ave. in Nashville and received lunch, some whiskey and an airplane ticket, all at no charge. It was a pretty good day.
I wasn't alone in getting such largesse, since very many members of the Nashville media had been invited to the main ballroom at the hotel that day for a lunchtime announcement by Southwest Airlines that it was starting service in and out of Nashville International Airport (BNA). All I remember about the presentation was that it included clips from old Southwest commercials, early '70s items that looked dated even in 1986. In its earliest days, Southwest was a businessman's airline that flew the triangle between Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. It sold passage between those places, of course, but the commercials also emphasized stewardesses in hotpants.
Toward the end of the lunch, everyone attending was given an envelope containing a voucher for a round-trip anywhere Southwest flew. (That spring, I used the voucher to fly to Austin to attend a friend's wedding.) There are news organizations that frown on their employees accepting that sort of gift, but I didn't work for a media company inclined to frown in that way. Southwest did not, in fact, ask anything in return from me, and I, in fact, never wrote anything much about the airline (until now). It was just the company's way of making itself memorable among those who, in the fullness of time, might tell a lot of other people about this unusual new airline.
A couple of years later, I traveled with some friends between Chicago and Nashville on Southwest, including one who had never flown on the airline before. Right after we received our numbered plastic boarding passes at the gate, rather than seat assignments, he commented, "This isn't like any other airline, is it?" he asked rhetorically.
It wasn't in those days, anyway. One time in the late '80s, I remember a Southwest flight attendant singing to us passengers a few bars of a song to the tune of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."
Either before or after the lunch, I went to one of the hotel's hospitality suites for a short appointment with Herb Kelleher, co-founder and chairman of the airline (maybe CEO too, at the time; he's since retired). An affable sort, he poured me some whiskey and we talked about Texas and I can't remember what else, but it wasn't much of a formal interview. Kelleher had probably knocked back a few himself by that time, but not enough to embarrass himself. Fun airline, fun interview.
Labels: air travel