Honoring the Founder of Southwest Airlines

The Wall Street Journal carries a piece (subscription required after seven days from this posting) on Lamar Muse – founding President and CEO of Southwest airlines – who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has been given only a few months to live.

    Lamar Muse, the pioneering executive who helped a fledgling Southwest Airlines take off in the 1970s, is dying, which raises an awkward question for the carrier: How do you honor a man who’s been both ally and adversary?

    During his eight years as chief executive of the carrier, Lamar Muse helped turn a struggling start-up into one of the most audacious success stories in corporate history, putting in place a business strategy that Southwest still follows to this day.

    Yet it was co-founder Herb Kelleher who went on to become the iconic figure associated with the airline. Last year, in Southwest’s magazine commemorating its 35th anniversary, Mr. Kelleher, co-founder Rollin King and others shared the credit for Southwest’s success — while Mr. Muse earned barely a footnote.

After Mr. Muse was deposed from the airline he remained something of a gadfly, not only starting a competitor airline Muse Air which Southwest eventually purchased but continually firing off notes to management on what he believed they should do. So while an important figure in Southwest history, he hasn’t always endeared himself to current management.

    [I]n a barrage of emails and phone calls, old colleagues and industry insiders began asking Southwest to publicly honor the man many industry experts credit with conceiving and executing the most successful business plan in aviation.

Full disclosure, much of this discussion has taken place on an e-mail list that I participate in, and on which Mr. Muse has been extremely active for several years.

Southwest has agreed to contribute $150,000 to Mr. Muse’s local YMCA (on top of a recent $350,000 gift that Muse made himself). But Southwest’s current position appears to be that they won’t name a plane for him or make other public gestures while Muse is still alive.

I do find this personally disappointing.

By the way, I really enjoyed Lamar Muse’s (somewhat self-serving) autobiography. It’s a great read and an interesting look into the founding of Southwest Airlines.

The world will miss this great aviation pioneer.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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