A pilot, King flew charter flights around Texas. Pacific Southwest Airlines was a well-known service in California, which did well by not flying over state lines, which would have made it subject to the rules of the federal Civil Aeronautics Board. King wanted to emulate that business model in Texas, and in 1967 he had drinks with his lawyer to discuss the idea. The CAB set fares, but by not flying outside of Texas, they could ignore those rules and undercut the fares of the major airlines. “Rollin, you’re crazy,” said the lawyer, Herb Kelleher. “Let’s do it.” Before King’s airline could get off the ground, though, the major airlines sued him. The case took three years, and went all the way up to the Supreme Court, before King could launch his new service. It took to the air on June 18, 1971, and he called it Southwest Airlines.
King specifically wanted flying to be fun again: he told ticket agents and flight attendants to joke with passengers and lighten things up. Word of mouth spread, and the airline was very quickly successful. After the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, and airlines could set their own fares, Southwest was successful enough to expand beyond Texas, and is now the largest domestic airline in the country, in number of passenger miles flown. When Kelleher was appointed Chairman, King shrugged and went back to being a pilot — flying his own planes (he was the airline’s largest stockholder). He was a member of the Board until his retirement in 2005. King died on June 26, from complications of a stroke he suffered a year before. He was 83.