Guest Blog: Beloved Late Southwest President Colleen Barrett Led With Heart


Southwest Airlines sadly announced the passing on May 8 of Colleen C. Barrett, one of the most prominent and beloved family members of the airline.

After starting as the legal secretary of founder Herb Kelleher, Colleen became the first corporate secretary and advanced all the way to president of the airline earning devotion, accolades and respect all along the way. In an industry where C-Suites are populated with B-School suits, Colleen was famous for her pink tracksuits.

Colleen and Herb were partners throughout the entire period of their leadership era. Together they were jointly the heart and soul of the development and growth of the airline.

I would like to briefly share a personal story that is but one example of what Colleen Barrett meant to the employees and customers of the airline.

In April of 1991, I was a new-hire pilot in class on the last day of ground school in Texas before our final exam when I received a note that I needed to call my wife who was at our then-home in Utah. Since it was before the days of cellphones, I ran down to the office of the training center to make the call.

My wife told me that one of our twin girls, born right before my employment with the airline, needed emergency surgery for something related to the twins being born significantly premature. She told me that she had already spoken to the baby’s doctor and that the surgery was scheduled in the hospital where they were born in an hour or so. My wife was dealing with a lot but she wanted me to check on the insurance policy we had with my new employment.

In those days new-hire pilots were on a temporary health insurance policy covering us for the first 90 days before transitioning to the normal corporate insurance policy. 

Still in the office and with the help of the training center secretary Gloria, I called the temporary insurance company to verify benefits. To my dismay, they informed me that we would have no coverage at all because this would be considered a pre-existing condition. They then said that we could appeal that decision after the surgery but to do that we would have to have the surgery done in a different hospital that was part of their network. 

By the time I got ahold of my wife again, she had already checked the baby into the original hospital and was distraught at the thought of dealing with a different doctor and hospital. The baby had herniated into her groin and needed the surgery immediately.

Right after that, I made one last call to our bank to see if I could raise the limit on our credit card to be able to make the required deposit for the surgery. After that, I went back up to the classroom with a heavy heart.

About 15 minutes later, I received another note that said to report to “Colleen’s office” in the headquarters building. When I arrived there, I was escorted right into her office where she informed me that Gloria had briefed her of what had happened. Colleen took me by the hand and told me to tell my wife to have the baby’s surgery right away at the original hospital and that she would either sort out the (expletive) insurance company or SWA would cover the medical expenses directly. She then told me to get back to class and to have a great career at SWA—which I did for the next 29 years. We never saw a single bill for that surgery and yes, the passing and memories of Colleen Barrett are meaningful to me and my family.


  1. That brought a tear to my eye. I was always a fan of Herb Kelleher, and to find out that he surrounded himself with equally good people is not a surprise. Retired for 8 years, but still have Southwest frequent flyer points left. A great airline with a lot of great people.

  2. Isn’t that amazing, you treat your employees right and the profits keep rolling in decade after decade. Too bad that the Wharton school of business doesn’t teach that principle.

  3. Kelleher and Barrett, along with Gordon Bethune at Continental, founded successful businesses by taking care of their employees and creating a good place to work. It’s sad, but it seems that those days – and people – are a thing of the past.

  4. What a heartwarming story. ‘Nuts!’ was one of my most memorable reads, and I regret that I never had the opportunity to work for SWA.

  5. Herb and Colleen both understood at deep level the importance of treating people well, both employees and passengers/customers. I remember meeting Herb on an “Inaugural Flight” from OAK to BUR years ago, as part of winning a promotional radio contest. When the local TV reporter tried to interview Herb, he was down on the ramp passing out donuts to the ground crew. During the short flight, he was passing out peanuts and cracking jokes with the passengers. Running an airline doesn’t mean sitting in a “fortress office” reviewing spreadsheets. Or at least it shouldn’t…

  6. Hi Myron,
    Great story! In 38 yrs atc, and working the SWA flights, never a disgruntle, upset
    or argue, those guys could fly the heck out of those B737’s! They just did what you asked, never missed a radio call etc. A can do spirit in a non perfect world, that started
    at the top.
    RIP Colleen.

    retired FAA atc

  7. Profound admiration, and respect for a compassionate and inspiring leader, Colleen Barrett.