Former Western Airlines chief dies

Los Angeles Times

GIG HARBOR — Arthur F. Kelly, a former head of Western Airlines who prided himself on his planes’ on-time arrivals and departures, lured customers with free champagne and more legroom and coined such marketing slogans as "Western Airlines, the only way to fly," has died. He was 88.

Kelly died Nov. 20 in Gig Harbor of complications from old age, said his son, Arthur F. "Chip" Kelly II. Formerly of Los Angeles, the elder Kelly recently moved to Washington to be near his family.

He spent nearly half a century with Western before it merged with Delta Air Lines n 1986. After a beginner’s job with United Airlines sweeping out planes in San Francisco, he joined Western in 1937 as manager of a "one-man airport" in Butte, Mont. He sold the tickets, peddled the box lunches, shoveled the snow and loaded the passengers and their luggage.

Serving as an Army colonel in the Air Transport Command during World War II, Kelly gained managerial experience by marshaling the travel of 1,000 aircraft and 30,000 men in England, France and Germany.

He returned to Western after the war, moved up to vice president in 1949, was elected a director in 1968, and became president and chief executive officer in 1973 when financier Kirk Kerkorian owned controlling interest in the airline.

In 1976, Kelly shed the president’s title and became chairman of the board and chief executive, and in 1979 exchanged those duties for chairman of the executive committee.

During his years in top management, he weathered the failure of two attempted mergers: one with American and another with Continental. After Western merged with Delta, he retired as chairman emeritus.

Convinced that late planes turned away customers, he reviewed each day’s on-time performance, examined the reasons behind any delays and took steps to prevent recurrences. Not by accident did Western top all airlines for the best on-time performance for four years running on Kelly’s watch.

As Western’s profits grew, Kelly outlined his top three marketing ploys: demonstrating on-time operation, providing "first class leg space in coach" and offering free champagne to all passengers on all flights.

As deregulation evolved, Kelly was bold and innovative in offering "no-strings" reductions that benefited the lucrative business market as well as tourists.

Describing himself as "sort of a human clock," Kelly did find reason to enjoy one flight delayed by a blizzard.

He introduced himself to the passengers and spent four hours talking to one pretty young woman: character actress Sally Payne. They eventually married and spent 55 years together before her death two years ago in their Los Angeles home.

Kelly is survived by his son, of Burley; one brother, retired Col. James Kelly; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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