June M. Morris, a quiet but significant innovator and leader in the travel and airline industries, passed away on July 23 at her home in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was 90 years old.
In the early 70s, Mrs. Morris started travel agency Morris Travel in a corner of her husband’s photo finishing shop. At its peak, Morris Travel was one of the largest agencies in the country with over 500 employees until it merged with its largest local competitor, becoming Morris Murdoch Travel.
From her travel agency perspective of selling airline tickets, Mrs. Morris quickly realized that airfares, especially in the SLC area of the time, were high enough to leave some room for a low-cost competitor to emerge. With the aid of an ambitious young employee named David Neeleman (who went on to found JetBlue and other air carriers), Morris Travel started selling in-house tickets on chartered flights to popular destinations for cost-conscious customers. She was proud of her no-frills service, even once referring to it as “One step above Greyhound.” Business took off, with demand often exceeding the scarce supply of available charter lift.
Once ignored by competitor airlines as a mere pest, the operation soon became successful enough that two airlines took Morris Travel to court, arguing that by selling tickets on scheduled flights, the company was operating as a de facto airline but without an airline certificate. The judge agreed, imposing a significant fine and giving Morris Travel a fixed and short deadline to obtain an operating certificate through established procedures.
Mrs. Morris hired an industry veteran—her first pilot employee—as vice president of flight operations and they furiously set about organizing Morris Air into a certificated carrier. They cobbled together two large chunks of the primary charter carriers they had been using, Ryan International and Sierra Pacific, and in record time the certificate was obtained and Morris Air was a proper airline. Business was brisk and Morris Air incorporated a lot of industry innovations like e-ticketing and employees working online from home.
In the early 90s, Mrs. Morris was diagnosed with cancer. About the same time, she agreed to sell her airline to Southwest Airlines in a cash and stock deal worth about $128 million. Southwest’s founder Herb Kelleher once joked that he had to buy Morris Air because they kept outbidding him on used aircraft. SWA kept most of the original Morris Air route map, which gave it prime access to many new markets in the West and Pacific Northwest that thrive to this day. The airlines that pushed Mrs. Morris into court may have won the battle and yet ultimately lost a war on the competitive front.
Mrs. Morris was an important and cherished member of the SWA Board of Directors until she retired in 2006. Southwest Airlines flies a 737 named and dedicated to Mrs. Morris with her signature on its side as a lasting tribute to an amazing businesswoman and friend.