Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly Announces Retirement Plans

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly has announced his retirement plans. He will transition roles in early 2022. From CEO, he will transition to become the airline’s Executive Chairman and plans to serve in that role until at least 2026. Robert Jordan, Executive Vice President Corporate Services, will become the next CEO as of February 1st, 2022.

Southwest Boeing 737
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly will be retiring from that role in early 2022. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Southwest Airlines executive leadership plans

Effective February 1st, Gary Kelly will no longer serve as CEO of Southwest Airlines. He has had a venerable career in the airline industry, including at Southwest.

Robert Jordan, Executive Vice President Corporate Services, will become Mr. Kelly’s successor. He will also join the Board of Directors at the time. Southwest Airlines is not currently announcing any other major leadership changes.

Southwest Airlines 737-800
Mr. Kelly has served as CEO since 2004. Photo: Getty Images

Gary Kelly stated the following on Mr. Jordan’s promotion to CEO:

“On behalf of the Southwest Airlines Board of Directors, I am delighted to announce Bob Jordan as CEO. Bob and I have worked side by side for more than 30 years. He is a gifted and experienced executive and well-prepared to take on this important role. Working closely with President Tom Nealon and Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven, we will begin developing transition plans in the coming weeks and months. These three top-notch Leaders make for a powerful team to lead us forward.”

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Mr. Kelly’s history with Southwest Airlines

Gary Kelly, now 66, became CEO of the airline in 2004. Since then, he has led the airline through some of the best and worst times. In total, he has spent 35 years working with Southwest Airlines.

Gary Kelly
CEO Garry Kelly. Photo: Southwest Airlines

He began at the airline as a Controller. He worked his way up and became Chief Financial Officer and Vice President Finance, then Executive Vice President and CFO, before becoming CEO and Vice Chairman in July 2004. He later also became Chairman and President before relinquishing the title of President with the appointment of Tom Nealon to the executive team.

As CEO, Mr. Kelly has stated that his biggest source of pride was that Southwest, in 50 years and continuing under him, has never had a single layoff or furlough. As CEO, he championed many major initiatives that transformed Southwest into a major national brand.

Gary Kelly
Mr. Kelly has also been known to have fun, including getting in on the airlines’ Halloween celebrations. Photo: Southwest Airlines

For example, one of the biggest portions of Southwest’s recent history was the acquisition of AirTran Airways, which Mr. Kelly helped guide. Other major initiatives under Mr. Kelly included the repeal of the Wright Amendment, the launch of international destinations for the first time in Southwest’s history, the introduction of a new reservation system and loyalty program, the new “Heart” livery, expansion to Hawaii, and finally, the introduction of the Boeing 737 MAX.

About Mr. Jordan

Mr. Jordan, who is 60, comes to the role of CEO after spending years with Southwest Airlines. He first joined Southwest in 1988, and his previous roles have included Director of Revenue Accounting, Corporate Controller, Vice President Procurement, Vice President Technology, Senior Vice President Enterprise Spend Management, Executive Vice President Strategy and Technology, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, AirTran President, and most recently Executive Vice President Corporate Services.

Robert Jordan, Southwest’s next CEO. Photo: Southwest Airlines

As you can see, Mr. Jordan has plenty of executive experience at Southwest and will bring all of his knowledge and skills to his new role as CEO. He has also been involved in major portions of Southwest’s transformations, including the acquisition of AirTran Airways, the development of the new website e-commerce platform, the Rapid Rewards loyalty program, and the boarding process.

Over the last year, his claim to fame was leading efforts for the airline’s voluntary leave and early separation programs. This helped reduce the airline’s labor expenses during the pandemic. He is credited with helping Southwest Airlines avoid involuntary furloughs and layoffs.

Woman checking in with a dog strapped to her back
One of Mr. Jordan’s most recent accomplishments included avoiding involuntary furloughs and layoffs while keeping the airline ready to handle the recovery. Photo: Getty Images

Mr. Jordan stated the following on his appointment as the new CEO of Southwest Airlines:

“I’m humbled, honored, and excited to be asked to serve as the next CEO. The Heart of Southwest is our People; they make the difference for our Customers, and I look forward to serving them. We have a terrific team of Leaders, many of whom I have had the joy of working alongside for decades. I’m looking forward to working with Gary, Mike and Tom on the transition effort and setting up Southwest for the next 50 years of giving Customers the Freedom to Fly.”

A major change for Southwest

Gary Kelly has been at the helm of Southwest Airlines for nearly 17 years, and he has been a known presence at the airline. From serving as CEO to interacting with employees and customers, his legacy will be well-remembered as a man who helped lead Herb Kelleher’s greatest business feat into the 21st century.

Freedom One
Mr. Kelly leaves behind a successful legacy at Southwest Airlines. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Through tough times and the best of times, he never gave up and continued to push Southwest Airlines. Today, the airline is better off than when he took the helm. The carrier is becoming more relevant to larger swaths of travelers and is cementing its position as a leading US airline.

He will remain until at least 2026, assuming all goes well, as Executive Chairman. He will continue to help guide Southwest Airlines under Mr. Jordan’s leadership.

Are you sad to see Gary Kelly departing Southwest Airlines as CEO? Let us know in the comments!