Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Philadelphia Economics

Cultural Imperialism

{Gary Cooper}
Herb Kelleher

Southwest Airlines announced it would begin flight service at Philadelphia International Airport in May 2004. Philadelphians sort of know the airport is in Southwest Philadelphia, many of us even remember getting a driver's license at the Division of Motor Vehicles, when it was located in the Southwest. But those Texas cowboys who run Southwest Airlines mean to give a whole new meaning to Southwest Philadelphia, planting the red-hot Texas branding iron there. For more than a century, the cultural flow has been the other way, from Philadelphia toward Texas. Sam Houston came from a family that still owns much of Chestnut Hill, and Dallas is named after a place near Scranton. We have strong historical links with what is apparently now pronounced "Takes-us", but somehow that's been lost in the Hollywood tradition of the cowboy, which, come to think of it, was invented by socialite Owen Wister of 7th and Spruce Street, and spread farther and wider by Zane Grey, the Philadelphia dentist.

Herb Kelleher the founder of Southwest Airlines, presents almost a caricature of the Texas cowboy. He looks like Gary Cooper, he drawls and brags, boasting cheerfully about just about everything his company does. He is planning to bring hordes of out-of-town visitors because of his tremendously cheap fares, and publicly told the Director of the Visitor's Information Center that he had a better plan on doubling his staff, right away, because crowds of tourists are coming. His airline is fairly new, but it ranks first in service, and highest in quality, number one in baggage handling. Stupendous is a word frequently used. And then flashes of the shrewd CEO underneath it all creep out. They've had 31 years of profitability, and are the only American airline with an investment-grade bond rating. At 26%, they have the highest return on investor dollar of any member of the S & P 500. They have customer satisfaction, and the best' employee satisfaction in the world'. Maybe he laughs at his own jokes a little too much, maybe he boasts too much, but there's an answer to that, too. He quotes Dizzy Dean -- "It ain't bragging -- if you really done it."


It's impossible not to like this guy, and the admiration grows when you hear his business plan. His airline initially confined itself to Texas because the state is large enough to be able to fly many flights entirely within the state boundaries. That way he escaped interstate regulations and demonstrated enormous cost savings from not having to comply with all the federal red tape. Eventually, many hampering rules had to be repealed after competitors started to complain and lobby. Another feature of past success was the ability to respond to insider gossip in the oil industry since airlines burn hundreds of millions of gallons of gasoline. Much of the profitability of an airline depends on accurately predicting the direction of oil prices, and hedging against them. By confining himself to short trips, Kelleher could concentrate on flying only one model of airplane, thus reducing training and maintenance costs. There are advantages to being a Texas airline.

But there is a notorious boisterousness to it all. The employees are encouraged to behave like members of a college fraternity party, described as "dropping the mask and behaving naturally", although the parents of teenagers would have other descriptions. Employees are expected to have fun while they work. No frills, but lot's of fun, and cheap. Really cheap. Philadelphia is in for a big dose of success, and lots of fun flying everywhere they never flew before, welcoming the whole country to visit, and y' all come back, hear? The city is told to expect soon to be acting and talking like l'll Texas on Delaware. Maybe we must prepare for a rise in the incidence of lung cancer, too, if young people go too far in imitating his flouting of political correctness. At one point in this in-your-face talk, he came down into the audience and bummed a pack of cigarettes. Haw, haw, haw.

It's, therefore, some surprise to learn this man is a lawyer, honors graduate of New York University Law School. And even more of a surprise to learn he was brought up in Audubon, New Jersey, graduating in the class of 1949 from Haddon Heights High School. He must once have absorbed an inward dose of Philadelphia culture, and even a fair dose of New York City, but it didn't change the outward Texan a whit. What seem to be some dominant genes, conceived on Philadelphia's Spruce Street perhaps but nurtured on the hot prairies, are now coming back home. Uniquenesses in many generations of immigrants have been dissolved by Philadelphia's cultural waters, but this may be the first time we have contended with the earnest bravado of Texas. Come to think of it, maybe it's a wake-up call we need to hear. Corrupt and contented, pay to play, borrow to spend -- all of these jingles have perhaps been whistled a little too often around here.

Originally published: Monday, June 26, 2006; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 16, 2019