Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines’ long-serving CEO, will step down early next year, the airline announced on Wednesday. Mr. Kelly has been CEO since 2004, when he led Southwest to become the nation’s largest airline by passenger volume.
Mr. Kelly will be named executive chairman and is expected to serve in that capacity until at least 2026. Robert E. Jordan will take over as CEO on February 1, 2022.
Mr. Kelly said in a statement, “Bob and I have worked side by side for more than 30 years.” “He is a gifted and experienced executive who is well-suited to take on this critical role.”
The announcement comes as Southwest, which has been in business for 50 years, recovers from the pandemic that devastated the airline industry. Analysts believe that travel will pick up significantly this summer, and Southwest appears to be well positioned to sell a large number of tickets.
The airline entered the pandemic in better financial condition than other major US carriers. Southwest became the first major airline to report a quarterly profit in the first quarter after suffering its first loss in nearly half a century last year.
Southwest, unlike its three main competitors — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines — flies almost entirely within the United States. This means that its business should recover more quickly because it is less reliant on international travel, which is expected to recover more slowly.
Since the pandemic began, the airline has added more than a dozen new destinations, including major hubs in Houston and Chicago. Southwest announced this month that it had more than doubled its order for Boeing’s 737 Max planes for next year, committing to take 64 with the option to buy dozens more.
Mr. Kelly, a trained accountant, has led Southwest with a steady hand, successfully navigating the company through the 2008 financial crisis and pandemic. He is well-liked in the business world. Mr. Kelly is the airline’s second-longest serving CEO, trailing only Herb Kelleher, the airline’s charismatic co-founder who died in 2019.
Mr. Jordan, the new CEO, joined Southwest in 1988, two years after Mr. Kelly. Mr. Jordan, 60, was instrumental in the acquisition of AirTran Airways and the creation of the airline’s frequent flier programme.
He is executive vice president of corporate service, where he is in charge of human resources, as well as communications and outreach.
Mr. Jordan said in a statement, “I am humbled, honoured, and excited to be asked to serve as the next CEO.” “Our people are the heart of Southwest; they make the difference for our customers, and I look forward to serving them.”