Stories from Texas

Stories from Texas > All Episodes

April 20, 2016

The Airline That Started With A Cocktail Napkin

By: W.F. Strong

This story starts off like many good stories do: two men walked into a bar. Now, we have to expand it a little, two men walked into a bar in San Antonio fifty years ago. Okay, it was actually a restaurant & bar. They ordered drinks, and perhaps hors d’oeuvres. One grabbed a cocktail napkin, took out his pen, and said to the other, “Here’s the plan.”

He then drew a simple triangle on the napkin. At the apex of the triangle he wrote Dallas. The bottom left he labeled San Antonio. On the bottom right he wrote Houston. He said, “There – that’s the business plan. Fly between these cities several times a day, every day.” And that is the story of how Southwest Airlines began, on a simple napkin in a bar in San Antonio.

The two men were Rollin King and Herb Kelleher. Rollin was a pilot and a businessman and Herb was a lawyer. Rollin would become a managing director of the company and Herb would become its chairman. There is a plaque at the Southwest Airlines headquarters that enshrines a version of the original napkin with this exchange:

“Herb, let’s start an airline.”

“Rollin, you’re crazy. Let’s do it!”

There are many things that Southwest became famous for. First, its LUV nickname, which is still the company’s stock market trading symbol. It introduced hostesses, as they called their flight attendants then, in hot pants and white go-go boots. They were competing in the sexy skies where Braniff stewardesses wore Pucci chic – uniforms by Italian designer Emilio Pucci – and Continental advertised, in a not-so-subtle double entendre, that they “moved their tails for you.” Southwest hostesses cooed in their ads, “There’s someone else up there who loves you.”

But beyond the sizzle, there was genuine business genius in Southwest efficiencies: peanut fares and the ten-minute turnaround, which had never been achieved before. To date, Southwest has flown over 23 million flights without one fatality. Now that’s a safety record.

Perhaps the coolest story in Southwest Airlines’ history, and relatively unknown, was the fare war they fought with now defunct Braniff Airlines in 1972. Braniff went head-to-head with Southwest on the Houston-Dallas route, offering $13 dollar fares as a means of “breaking” Southwest, which didn’t have deep pockets. Southwest responded with a $13 dollar fare or a $26 dollar fare that included a free bottle of Chivas, Crown Royal or Smirnoff.

According to airline lore, for the two months before Braniff surrendered, Southwest was Texas’ biggest distributor of premium liquor.

Not long before he died, Rollin King confessed that the napkin story wasn’t entirely true, but he said that it was a “hell of a good story.” It was sad to hear that, but too late: the myth had become more powerful than the reality. An old saying in journalism is that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. This is what I prefer to do. After all, it is hard to imagine that a concept so perfectly observant of Occam’s Razor – the simplest solution is usually the best – would not have, at some point, been sketched out on a napkin, a legal pad, or the collected dust on the hood of Cadillac.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.


Episodes

July 3, 2024

He who has the gold, makes the rules

Stories of lost gold have long dominated Texas lore. Coronado looped around what’s now the Texas Panhandle in search of it. And there’s that allegedly lost gold mine in the Guadalupe Mountains of far west Texas. Texas Standard commentator WF Strong has had his own experience with reportedly lost treasure. And he recalls another story […]

Listen

June 19, 2024

The craziest race you’ve never heard of happened on Padre Island

Texas Standard commentator WF Strong says that, starting in the 1950s, participants in the Padre Island Walkathon covered 110 miles – all walking, no running – over three days.

Listen

May 8, 2024

An AI Experiment

There’s been a lot of talk lately about artificial intelligence — what it can do and what its limitations are. And if you’ve been keeping tabs on it at all, there’s no doubt that it seems to be getting better — and fast. Texas Standard commentator WF Strong wanted to find out for himself just […]

Listen

April 10, 2024

Counting Cattle With the Fathers

Longtime listeners may know — Texas Standard is fast approaching a milestone birthday. We’re turning 10 next March. With us almost from the beginning have been signature segments including the Typewriter Rodeo and Stories From Texas — these bi-weekly commentaries from WF Strong. He says he has a goal beyond entertainment.

Listen

March 13, 2024

The Other Hill Country

Over the next couple of months, many will set off for the Texas Hill Country to enjoy the splendor of the wildflowers celebrating spring. Many of the tourists are flatlanders, who not only love the kaleidoscope of colors but also driving the hilly roads that snake through billions of blossoms. Texas Standard Commentator WF Strong […]

Listen

February 28, 2024

The mystery of the Texas box

We’ve all heard the proverb about one man’s trash being another’s treasure. Well, for generations of a family now living in Texas, the treasure in question was an old box found discarded many years earlier. Texas Standard commentator W.F. Strong has the story.

Listen

February 14, 2024

Bonnie and Clyde: Star-synced lovers

February the 14th may be one of the more divisive days on the calendar. Though Valentine’s Day is meant to celebrate love — many find it cheesy, commercial, or downright depressing. Others, lean into the holiday. In the latter camp, it seems, were a pair infamous lovers from Texas. Texas Standard commentator WF Strong has […]

Listen

January 3, 2024

New Year’s Eve on Houston Street

Champagne toasts, fireworks, making resolutions, fancy meals… those are just some of the many ways Texans chose to to ring in 2024. Texas Standard commentator WF Strong, however, decided to welcome the New Year by reflecting on the past.

Listen