The History Of Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines has had a long history in the United States. The carrier had its start in the late 1960s and, since then, has grown significantly to become one of the largest airlines in the world. This is the history of Southwest Airlines.

Southwest Airlines plane
As one of the largest airlines in the United States, Southwest has had a long history. Photo: Getty Images

A Texan carrier

Southwest Airlines was incorporated in 1967. The airline’s founder, Herb Kelleher, had plans to fly in Texas between San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. This was about 11 years before the deregulation of the airline industry.

During this time, however, Braniff, Trans Texas, and Continental Airlines took issue with Southwest’s proposed operations. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Southwest on December 7th, 1970, called Air Southwest at the time.

In 1971, Air Southwest changed its name to Southwest Airlines. At the same time, Boeing offered to sell Southwest three 737-200s, which the carrier took up. Braniff and Texas International (previously Trans Texas) still held issues with Southwest Airlines and attempted to prevent the airline’s operations.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
The 737-200 was a big part of Southwest’s history. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which strictly regulated the civil aviation market in the United States, threw out complaints from the airlines. So, the two turned to Texas courts. The Texas Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of Southwest Airlines.

Finally, on June 18th, Southwest flew its first flights with six roundtrips between Dallas (DAL) and San Antonio (SAT) and 12 roundtrips between Dallas and Houston (IAH). One-way fares were as low as $20, or about $126 in today’s value.

By the fall, Southwest was flying hourly service between Dallas and Houston with 14 roundtrips and every-other-hour service between Dallas and San Antonio for a total of seven roundtrips. The airline also completed the Texas triangle by inaugurating flights between Houston-Hobby (HOU) and SAT.

Leading up to deregulation

In 1973, Southwest and Braniff entered a “$13 Fare War.” Braniff was offering $13 fares between Dallas and Houston – which was Southwest’s only profitable route at the time as a hope to wind down the competition. Southwest responded by offering a base $13 fare or a full fare ticket for $26 that included a free bottle of premium liquor.

During this fare war, Southwest became the largest distributor in Texas of premium liquors like Chivas, Crown Royal, and Smirnoff for two months. 1973 saw the airline turn its first yearly profit. By this time, the carrier still only had three 737s in its fleet.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
Southwest ruffled plenty of feathers at its start. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

During this time, lengthy court battles were trying to get Love Field shut down. Southwest, however, fought and got the right to stay at the airport, which is still a significant hub for its operations.

The airline began service to the Rio Grande Valley with flights to Harlingen, added its fifth 737, and soon was listed on the American Stock Exchange with its current ticker symbol “LUV.” In 1976, the airline received rights to expand to Austin (AUS), Corpus Christi (CRP), El Paso (ELP), Lubbock (LBB), and Midland (MAF). By the end of 1977, Southwest had ten aircraft in its fleet, all 737s.


After deregulation, Southwest sought to expand. The airline was given traffic rights between HOU and New Orleans (MSY), began service to Amarillo (AMA), and continued to grow with orders for more Boeing 737s. In 1978, Southwest and Braniff announced that they had settled their differences. And, Braniff even leased a Boeing 727-200 to Southwest– the only non-737 aircraft type the airline ever operated. In 1983, the airline again leased two 727s for a year. Another two came on in 1984.

The 727 was the only non-737 aircraft that Southwest Airlines flew. Photo: Jon Proctor via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of 1979, the Wright Amendment was proposed. This would limit interstate services from Love Field to states immediately bordering Texas. This was designed to divert more traffic over to Dallas/Fort Worth International– where Southwest did not want to move.

The airline then opened up services out of Dallas-Love to Tulsa (TUL), Oklahoma City (OKC), and Albuquerque (ABQ). With growth still on the carrier’s mind, the airline returned to Houston (IAH) with inflight contests and complimentary cocktails on selected flights.

In 1981, Southwest went to Boeing and told them it would be interested in purchasing ten new 737-300s with options for ten more if Boeing were to develop the aircraft. Boeing eventually did move forward with the 737 Classic series, and Southwest ordered ten of the type that same year.

By 1982, Southwest had added flights to Las Vegas (LAS), Phoenix (PHX), San Diego (SAN), Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), and Kansas City (MCI) with a total fleet of 37 aircraft.

At the end of 1983, Southwest had inaugurated more flights out of Texas to California and begun retrofitting its jets to include leather interiors and warm earth tones. By now, it had grown its fleet to 46 aircraft.

Further growth in the 1980s

In 1984, Southwest Airlines took its first Boeing 737-300. The first flight for the aircraft would take place on December 17th, 81 years to the day from the Wright Brother’s flight. The Southwest jet was aptly named “Kitty Hawk.”

The History Of Southwest Airlines
The 737-300 flew for Southwest until 2017. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

In 1985, Southwest began flights out of St. Louis (STL) and Chicago-Midway (MDW). At the same time, the airline expanded flights out of Phoenix (PHX) and added ski-season flights to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In the same year, with more 737-300s entering the fleet, Southwest returned the five 727-200s it was operating.

Also, in 1985, Southwest announced it was going to acquire Muse Air and merge it with a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southwest. In 1986, Muse Air became TranStar.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
Southwest acquired Muse Air. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Throughout the 1980s, Southwest continued to experiment with ticket prices. The airline would offer Senior Citizens programs that allowed older Americans to buy tickets for $25 one-way. At the same time, several routes would see low fare offers. Significantly, however, Southwest would offer its companion fares on select flights.

As the airline approached its 16th anniversary in 1987, executives still had expansion on their minds. In May of that year, Southwest announced it would order 20 122-seat 737-500s with options for 20 more. These would join the 737-300s already in Southwest’s fleet. Shortly after, in June, the airline opened “The Company Club,” a frequent flyer program that rewarded passengers based on the number of total trips flown.

Also, in 1987, Southwest’s wholly-owned TranStar subsidiary ceased operations and entered liquidation.

Throughout the 1980s, Southwest earned high marks with customers, receiving few complaints and boasting a strong on-time record. This came as, every year, the carrier continued to grow and add new destinations.

The 1990s

Southwest inaugurated its first Boeing 737-500 in early 1990. The airline billed it as the newest, most technologically advanced, and quietest aircraft in the world at the time. In May 1990, the airline added its 100th airplane, also a Boeing 737-500.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
The 737-500 entered service with Southwest in 1990 and was used as part of the airline’s promotional tie-up with SeaWorld. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

Much of the early 1990s was devoted to growth. The airline inaugurated services to Baltimore– now one of the airline’s largest operating bases– and grew heavily in the Midwest and West Coast.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
Herb Kelleher arm wrestles for the ad slogan “Just Plane Smart” in 1992. Photo: Southwest Airlines

By the end of 1995, Southwest had 224 aircraft in its fleet and had grown its recognition in the United States. Continuing its trend from the previous decade, Southwest maintained high customer satisfaction.

By 1996, Southwest expanded further into the southeastern United States with new flights to Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando.

The airline also renamed “The Company Club” to the now-infamous “Rapid Rewards.” Later in 1996, the airline introduced the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa Card.

In 1997, Congress enacted the Shelby Amendment. This provision to the Wright Amendment allowed flights from Dallas-Love to expand to Mississippi, Alabama, and Kansas. Also, in 1997, Southwest accepts its first Boeing 737-700 Next Generation. The airline is the launch customer for the type.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
The 737-700 remains a big part of Southwest’s operations. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

In 1999, Southwest added its 300th Boeing 737 as it continued to expand on the East Coast, adding services out of Connecticut and North Carolina. By the end of the year, the carrier had 312 aircraft in its fleet and flew over 840,000 trips that year.

The 2000s; post-9/11

In 2000, Southwest ordered a firm 94 new 737 Next-Generation aircraft on top of the 74 jets already on order. The airline also retained options for over 190 aircraft.

Southwest unveiled its Canyon Blue livery in 2001. Photo: Getty Images

In 2001, Southwest was looking strong. The airline continued to grow and grew strongly while also preparing for the future with an executive succession plan. However, then came 9/11 and the downturn in aviation.

In 2002, expansion was a little less than it previously was. However, the carrier still hit a fleet count of 375 planes and carried over 60 million passengers. By 2003, the airline added its 60th destination, Philadelphia, and flew over 65 million passengers with a fleet of 388 jets. In 2004, Southwest crossed 400 planes in its fleet.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
By 2005, Southwest had eliminated its rear-facing seats. Photo: Southwest Airlines

In 2005, Southwest surpassed the 3,000-daily flight mark and crossed over 200 daily flights out of Las Vegas– the airline’s largest airport at the time. Also, in 2005, Southwest began a big campaign to repeal the Wright Amendment and give it more freedom to fly in and out of Dallas-Love, the carrier’s original home. However, only Missouri was granted an exception.

Southwest tail fins las vagas getty
Even after 9/11, Southwest remained profitable. Photo: Getty Images

Denver (DEN) service opened up in 2006 and remains a large base for the airline. And, in 2006, Southwest received a win with the Wright Amendment Reform Act. Although it was not a complete repeal, the airline could now sell tickets and offer connecting and one-stop direct flights across its entire system from Dallas-Love Airport– one of the carrier’s most significant bases. Only in 2014 was the Wright Amendment scrapped.

By the end of 2007, the airline had crossed 88 million passengers flown in a year onboard 520 of its Boeing 737 aircraft.

At this point, Southwest was mostly a domestic carrier. However, its passengers did want to travel internationally. So, the airline received the necessary permissions to implement a codeshare with WestJet, a Canadian airline. Continuing this vein of expansion to major markets, in 2009, the airline added flights to New York-LaGuardia.

The merger with AirTran

In September 2010, Southwest announced that it would purchase all outstanding common stalk of AirTran, thus acquiring the carrier. The next month, Southwest announced plans to offer WiFi onboard its fleet.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines and AirTran planes after the merger was announced. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Southwest continued to move on with its merger with AirTran in 2011 as the Department of Justice (DOJ) reviewed the merger. The airline reached agreements with its pilots and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Southwest’s transition plan to merge AirTran’s operations into its own. The purchase closed in 2011– the same year Southwest celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines started to roll out Wi-Fi-equipped aircraft in the early 2010s. Photo: Southwest Airlines

In 2011, Southwest received permission from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to conduct international flights. AirTran would fly to Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, and Mexico City in Mexico. The primary gateways for flights to Mexico would be out of Orange County, California, and San Antonio.

Modernizing the airline

In 2011, Southwest became the launch customer for the Boeing 737 MAX. The airline is one of the biggest customers and operators of the aircraft. By the end of 2011, the carrier had 698 aircraft in its fleet and had flown over 100 million revenue passengers.

Southwest 737 MAX Parked
Southwest is a big 737 MAX customer. Photo: Getty Images

On March 1st, 2012, Southwest and AirTran received FAA approval for a single operating certificate, which was a crucial part of the integration of the two airlines. Only a week later, Southwest received its first Boeing 737-800 and showed it off on March 21st.

As the airline examined its plan forward, the carrier decided to let go of AirTran’s Boeing 717s. All 88 of the 717s were subleased to Delta Air Lines, leaving Southwest with an all-737 fleet.

The History Of Southwest Airlines
Delta decided to sublease Southwest’s 717s acquired from AirTran. Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr

Southwest’s international services were coming from AirTran and, before the airline acquired AirTran, Southwest focused on its domestic market. Finally, in 2014, Southwest launched its first international services out of Baltimore, heading to Aruba. Since then, the airline has expanded its services with focuses on Central America and the Caribbean.

On December 29th, 2014, the last AirTran Airways revenue flight, Flight 1, departed Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta bound for Tampa Bay International Airport.

On August 30th, 2017, Southwest received its first Boeing 737 MAX 8, the first in North America. This plane went into service on October 1st on flight #1 from Dallas to Houston. Less than a month later, the airline’s last Boeing 737-300 was retired.

Finally, in 2019, Southwest added a long-missing part of its route network: Hawaii. The carrier has, thus far, seen success in the market.

What is your favorite part of Southwest’s history? Let us know in the comments!