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Thursday, June 29, 2006 | I should begin with the roll of toilet paper that Herb Kelleher sent me.
Kelleher was a founder and longtime CEO of Southwest Airlines, and he still is active in the company. I remember flying Southwest years ago, in its infancy, when its flights were mostly between Texas cities like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. On these flights, they not only had drinks, but they were $2 doubles. You never flew a more fun airline, and the “spirit” you feel on Southwest flights today – the banter, the chatter, from and among the flight crew – dates to those early party-in-the-air days.
Some time in the 1980s, I became a corner in a dialogue started by Jim Price, a San Diegan and a native of Childress, Texas, whom I met and swapped yarns with on the general media ramble. Jim Price knew Herb Kelleher, enough to write him a personal letter regarding the toilet paper feeds on Southwest’s fleet of 737s. In the letter, Price informed Kelleher that he flew Southwest regularly from San Diego to Oakland, “but no more,” he said, until Kelleher corrected the toilet paper feed.
The feed, Price contended, should always be off the bottom. On Southwest, the paper fed over the top. I was a columnist at The San Diego Union, and a Texan, with a whimsical turn of mind, and likely to have opinions about toilet paper, so Jim Price sent me a copy of the letter.
To me, Jim Price will always be a great guy. His skillet-corn bread recipe is in my cookbook, published in 1988, of Texas-style cooking. It is the absolute best corn bread you will ever eat.
But he was dead wrong about the toilet paper.
It always feeds over the top. I wrote a column affirming this reality, and Jim sent it to Herb Kelleher. Shortly thereafter I received a personal note from Herb, cordially acknowledging my good sense. A few days after that, I received a package, in which was a wrapped roll of Scott Toilet Tissue, and on the wrapper was a brief salutation, and Herb Kelleher’s signature. (I know that airlines wouldn’t spend money on Scott for their airplanes, but it was a symbolic thing.)
At home, there is a banjo vanity in the guest bathroom, creating a ledge above the toilet, and I positioned Herb’s signed roll of toilet paper there for a conversation piece. It stayed there for months. Then we changed cleaning ladies, and I came home to find a fresh roll of Scott’s in the holder, and Herb’s signed wrapper gone. To this day I grieve about that lost artifact and my stupidity at not identifying it to the new person.
That is how I feel about Southwest Airlines. But it is not enough – and Herb, as sentimental but also as realistic as they come, will understand this – to compel me to support moving Lindbergh Field, a whole, complete airport, for the sake of one airline.
Which is the proposal under consideration. States the San Diego Regional Airport Authority: “The main reasons for passenger growth are a strong and diverse regional economy, the region’s population growth, and the expansion of low-fare carriers (such as Southwest, America West, Frontier and JetBlue). In 2004, the low-fare carriers carried approximately 45% of the Airport’s domestic passengers.”
Jet Blue has seven daily operations out of Lindbergh to La Guardia and Washington Dulles; Frontier has five Denver round-trips, and America West, if you really want to count it “low fare” since it belongs to US Airways, has about 45 daily operations (an operation is a takeoff and a landing).
Southwest has around 200 operations at Lindbergh daily, accounting for a capacity of roughly 28,000 passengers a day, based on 137 seats on most Southwest 737s (no, I don’t know which way the toilet paper feeds these days, but I could check). If the figure levels out at 25,000 a day, that totals about 9,120,000 passengers per year. Airport Authority figures show 17.5 million total Lindbergh passengers in 2005, so let’s use 19 million for 2006. That shows Southwest accounting for 48 percent of passengers. The figure for annual operations shows Southwest with about 30 percent of the total.
Thus Lindbergh would gain, say 40 percent against its projected capacity if Southwest just went out of business. Or operated at a second airport, as it does in Dallas, Houston and Chicago, or satellite airports in other areas. What would happen if San Diego didn’t move Lindbergh, but built a second one for the low-fare carriers, mainly Southwest?
Whimsically thinking, I see a nice, compact, no-frills terminal, based on the contemporary airport-as-drop-off-point reality, located at Brown Field. The whimsy comes from the nation’s southwest-most airport being built mainly to serve Southwest Airlines. The reality is that it would whack billions off current airport planning. I bet Herb Kelleher would endorse that, and adopt San Diego as Southwest’s Finest City.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or send a letter to the editor here.