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On Wednesday, Southwest Airlines announced that its longtime chief executive, Gray Kelly, will be stepping down at the beginning of next year. Executive vice president Bob Jordan was announced as a replacement and will become the new chief executive on February 1, 2022.
Gary Kelly, 66, is one of the longest-serving chief executives at any United States airline and a top executive at Southwest since 2004. While he will vacate his post as chief executive officer in early 2022, Southwest has said he will serve as the executive chairman until at least 2026.
Kelly steered the company through the COVID-19 pandemic and many other crises, such as the 2008 global financial meltdown and the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max jets in 2019 after two fatal crashes within five months. The two-year grounding affected Southwest Airlines the most because its fleet of jets comprises only Boeing.
In a statement by Kelly describing his successor, “He’s an experienced executive and well-prepared and gifted enough to take on this role,” he said. He also mentioned that he has worked with Bob Jordan for 30 years.
While the two men have received congratulatory messages from their colleagues, co-workers and associates, there are no doubts about the challenges ahead for the incoming chief executive. Henry Harteveldt, president of an aviation consulting group, Atmosphere Research Group, noted that Southwest Airlines has many pressing issues that Jordan will need to handle. “The airline has a reputation for customer service and an attractive work culture, but the pandemic has changed many things that need to be fixed,” he said.
Kelly’s career began at Southwest 35 years ago as the airline’s controller. He rose through the ranks to become the airline’s chief financial officer and Vice President for finance before becoming the executive vice president. He was named chief executive and vice-chairman in 2004, and then in 2008, he became the president and chairman. He vacated the position of president in January 2017 and handed it over to Tom Naelon, former board member and executive.
Kelly’s tenure oversaw the acquisition of AirTran Airways and launched service to the first international destinations of the airline. Even though he experienced some difficult times, the airline never laid off or furloughed workers through his time as chief executive. Before joining Southwest, he worked with Arthur Young & Co. in Dallas as a certified public accountant and with Systems Center as a controller.
“We’ve had an outstanding leader and CEO in Gary for almost two decades. He has shaped Southwest into the best possible form over the years and built a group of senior leaders to steer the airline’s sail into the next 50 years,” lead director on Southwest’s board, William Cunningham, said.
To fill the gaping hole Kelly will leave behind, the board is tapping Jordan, another executive with deep roots at the airline. Jordan joined Southwest in 1988 and has risen through the ranks in posts like director of revenue accounting, corporate controller, executive Vice President and chief commercial officer. Bob Jordan has also played a significant role in Southwest’s efforts to encourage voluntary leave and early separation programs which have reduced labor costs and enabled the airline to avoid layoffs during the pandemic.
Jordan, 60, once worked with Hewlett-Packard as a financial analyst and programmer. He attended Texas A&M University, where he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees.