Southwest Airways CEO Kelly stepping down in 2022, might be changed by firm veteran

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Gary Kelly, Chief Executive Officer of Southwest Airlines Co., speaks during an event in the new Southwest Airlines Co. International Terminal at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas.

Carter Smith | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, said Wednesday that he will step down as CEO of the company in February after more than 17 years in the top position.

The Dallas-based airline named three-decade-old corporate veteran Bob Jordan, executive vice president of Corporate Services, as Kelly’s successor and hired him to lead the company’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kelly, 66, ran the low-cost airline during the financial crisis, a merger, aggressive expansion, and the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max. The pandemic devastated travel demand, causing Southwest its first annual loss since 1972 last year.

The airline is now looking to regain a foothold and capitalize on a surge in travel demand, especially from domestic vacationers in the US who are taking center stage. Southwest has seen revenue spike in the past few months and made a profit in the first quarter of the year thanks to more than $ 1 billion in federal aid.

Like Kelly, Jordan, 60, has been with Southwest for more than three decades. He led the 2011 acquisition of competitor AirTran, Southwest’s frequent flyer program, e-commerce platform, and a number of acquisitions and other programs designed to cut labor costs during the pandemic, Southwest said.

Kelly will hold the position of executive chairman until “at least” 2026, the company said.

“Succession planning is one of the most important roles of a CEO and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and working with our board of directors,” said Kelly in a statement to employees.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he wrote. “My focus will be on business and fleet strategy, government and airport matters, and leading the board of directors.”

Southwest stock lost 0.6% more than the competition in afternoon trading.