Southwest Airlines Co. said Thursday that its colorful co-founder Herb Kelleher would retire in May as chairman of the nation's largest low-cost carrier.
Over the last few years, the 76-year-old former attorney has been gradually reducing his role at the airline that he formed with Texas businessman Rollin King in 1971. The airline that began as an idea that Kelleher and Rollins jotted down on a cocktail napkin has since grown to carry more passengers than any other carrier in the U.S.
After recovering from prostate cancer, Kelleher gave up the day-to-day management of the airline in 2001 and has since focused on strategic and legislative issues for the carrier.
In a statement, Kelleher said he chose May to retire because the "organizational transition that began in 2001 will then be complete."
"The people of Southwest have always been my pride, my joy and my love," Kelleher said. "Their indomitable dedication and esprit de corps have taken Southwest from a three-airplane dream to a 500-airplane reality."
Southwest said also that Kelleher's longtime associate Colleen Barrett would step down as the airline's president in July 2008. Barrett, 62, began at Southwest as Kelleher's legal secretary before rising to become the carrier's customer-service guru and eventually its corporate secretary and president.
Both Kelleher and Barrett will remain with the company as employees for five years, the airline said.
In what it said was a vote of confidence for its top executive, the Dallas-based carrier said Gary Kelly, 52, would remain as chief executive until his contract expires Feb. 1, 2011.
Kelleher's retirement announcement came just days after Southwest reported lower quarterly profit and said it was scaling back expansion plans.
In Thursday's trading, Southwest shares rose 68 cents to $16.40.