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Southwest Airlines Announces Executive Succession Plans

Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly announced his intention to leave the role he has held since 2004, with the goal of ascending to the carrier’s executive chairman. Effective on February 1, 2022, executive vice president of corporate services Bob Jordan will become the carrier’s sixth leader.

After seven years of service, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly is planning to leave his role and ascend to the role of executive chairman of the board. In a press release, the Dallas-based carrier announced Kelly’s retirement plans, while announcing executive vice president of corporate services Robert Jordan will become the sixth chief executive of the carrier.

Kelly Led Southwest Through Mergers, International Expansion, and Pandemic

Kelly became the chief executive of Southwest in 2004, replacing James Parker in the role after an 18-year career with the carrier. By 2008, he would take the board chairman role from beloved airline co-founder Herb Kelleher, who passed away in 2019.

During his tenure with the airline, Kelly oversaw a time of rapid expansion. In 2006, CNBC credits his threats to stop flying out of their home airport of Dallas Love Field (DAL) as enough to repeal the Wright Amendment. The act of Congress was originally intended to protect business at neighboring Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), but instead severely limited how Southwest could operate out of the smaller airport.

By 2010, Kelly led the airline’s acquisition of AirTran Airways in a $1.4 billion deal. The purchase lead to Southwest becoming an international airline, and began flying Southwest aircraft into the Caribbean by July 2014. In 2017, the airline worked with Lippincott to introduce a new brand – replacing the airplane logo with the heart and introducing a new livery.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Kelly and his executive team to make difficult decisions about their staff. Although the airline took pride in never laying off employees in their 50-year history, Kelly prepared the airline for the first layoffs in its history. The carrier was able to avoid offloading workers after additional bailout money was granted by Congress.

Bob Jordan to Succeed Kelly in CEO Chair

Kelly will continue to remain active with the carrier through 2026 as executive chairman. Replacing him will be the current executive vice president of corporate services Robert Jordan. “Bob” joined the carrier in 1988 and worked his way upward as director of revenue accounting, vice president of technology, executive vice president of strategy and technology, and ultimately chief commercial officer.

“Bob and I have worked side by side for more than 30 years. He is a gifted and experienced executive and well-prepared to take on this important role,” Kelly said in a press release. “Working closely with President Tom Nealon and Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven, we will begin developing transition plans in the coming weeks and months. These three top-notch Leaders make for a powerful team to lead us forward.”

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