Obituary: Rollin King / Pilot who founded Southwest Airlines

April 10, 1931 - June 26, 2014

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Rollin King, a Texas businessman whose idea for a low-fare, no-frills intrastate airline grew into the nation's top domestic carrier, Southwest Airlines, died Thursday in Dallas. He was 83.

The cause was complications of a stroke a year ago, said his son, Edward King.

In 1967, Rollin King was running a small charter service that ferried hunters around Texas when he sat down at a bar with his attorney to discuss a new business plan: an airline offering short hauls, frequent flights and low prices that would fly between the state's major urban hubs.

According to company lore, Mr. King used a cocktail napkin to sketch the airline's routes -- a triangle linking Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

By flying only within the state, the new company could avoid the era's restrictive federal regulations, but a David-vs.-Goliath battle ensued, with established rivals like Braniff and Continental tying up Mr. King and his lawyer, Herb Kelleher, in litigation for three years.

After a legal battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the rogue airline came out the victor and launched its service on June 18, 1971. Soon it became famous for cut-rate tickets, sassy slogans ("Somebody Up There Loves You") and stewardesses in orange hot pants.

After deregulation in 1978, Southwest expanded to routes outside Texas and became the largest domestic airliner in number of passengers. This summer, it will become an international carrier with flights to the Caribbean.

After a management struggle in 1978, Mr. King, who had learned to pilot a plane in his youth, joined Southwest's flight crew before turning to other investment projects. He served on the airline's board of directors for nearly 40 years, until his retirement in 2006.

In some interviews he expressed regret at letting go of the management reins and allowing much of the credit for the company's success to go to others. But on Friday, past and present Southwest executives heaped praise on him.

Mr. King's "great idea, resourcefulness, and perseverance launched Southwest Airlines in our endeavor to democratize the sky," Gary Kelly, chairman and chief executive, said Friday.

Mr. Kelleher, the lawyer who ran the company as executive chairman for 30 years, said Mr. King's notion of convenient, affordable air travel "proved to be an empirical role model for not only the U.S. as a whole but, ultimately, for all of the world's inhabited continents."

Mr. King was born in Cleveland on April 10, 1931. He came from a line of successful entrepreneurs: His family founded the White Motor Co., which produced the White steam car, and the White Sewing Machine Co.

He studied at Cornell University before graduating from what is now Case Western Reserve University in 1955. After earning a master's degree in business from Harvard University in 1962, he followed a roommate to San Antonio, where he ran an investment business. In 1964, he bought the Wild Goose Flying Service, which was barely breaking even flying hunters around the state.

Mr. King was inspired by PSA, a California carrier that was shaking up the market in the 1960s with short, cheap flights that didn't cross state lines.

The story goes that when he told Mr. Kelleher he wanted to do the same thing in Texas, the lawyer replied, "Rollin, you're crazy. Let's do it."

Much of the operating strategy was devised by the late M. Lamar Muse, an airline veteran who was hired as president in 1971 and immediately shook up Southwest's bigger rivals with a $10 fare on the last flight of the week from Houston to Dallas. Muse wrote in a 2002 autobiography that he had a poor relationship with Mr. King. The strain apparently extended to Southwest's board, which to Muse's surprise, accepted his resignation in 1978.

Mr. King later said that he wanted to run the company, but when Mr. Kelleher was named chairman he stepped back from the airline he founded and served for a few years as a pilot. He remained Southwest's largest shareholder for many years.

After retiring from the board, he admitted to a reporter that being left out of many accounts of Southwest's history bothered him.

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