Fighting Your Corner: How Arm Wrestling Resolved An Airline Dispute - Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts

August 10, 2018

It seems that more and more often, the default approach to someone utilising something of yours without permission is to sue them. No matter if your dispute is a private affair or a corporate one, the oft-shared advice is to ‘lawyer up’ to ensure that you’re in the best position to fight your corner and hopefully win the case. However in some cases, it seems going for an entertainment-infused approach may well be your best bet, especially if the 1992 dispute between Southwest Airlines and Stevens Aviation is anything to go by.

The story starts with Southwest Airlines. By 1992, it was a behemoth in the industry, in part thanks to its initially unconventional approach in marketing when it first came about. Back in the late sixties, airlines were stuffy affairs. All very corporate, all very business-like. Completely regulated by the government if they flew between states. Texas businessman Rollin King and his lawyer, Herb Kelleher spotted a loophole and changed all that with their scheduled flights between cities in the same state at far cheaper rates than was customary. And to entice passengers? Crazy marketing ideas where staff would cheerlead passengers. When the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange, their three letter listing was ‘LUV’.

Various ad campaigns played on this moniker – “Love Is Still Our Field” and “Somebody Else Up There Who Loves You” to name but two. By 1990, the humorous approach was altered slightly to the extremely simple and extremely effective “Just Plane Smart.” But there was a hitch. Unbeknownst to the corporate giant of Southwest Airlines, “Just Plane Smart” had been used as a motto by a tiny South Carolina aircraft sales company years earlier. When Stevens Aviation’s lawyers found out about Southwest Airlines’ use of their slogan, they encouraged their CEO Kurt Herwald to sue. But Herwald, who had long been a fan of Kelleher and Southwest Airlines had another plan, challenging his idol to an arm wrestle under the guise of his Executive VP, Stephen Townes:

Dear Mr. Kelleher,

We LOVE your new ads that use the clever, creative, effective "Plane Smart" theme! We can testify to its effectiveness since we've been using it in our own ads for a long time. In the true fun-loving spirit on which Southwest Airlines was founded, we challenge you to a duel to see who gets to keep "Plane Smart" -- big ol' Southwest or little bitty Stevens. (Please -- no lawyers!) We trust that you accept this challenge in the spirit intended... No litigiousness implied at all. We challenge you to a sleeves-up, best-two-out-of-three arm-wrestling match between you and our chairman.

P.S. Our chairman is a burly 38-year-old former weight lifter who can bench press a King Air.


Stephen D. Townes

Executive VP, Stevens Aviation 

The response arrived three weeks later:

Dear Mr. Townes,

Our chairman can bench press a quart of Wild Turkey and five packs of cigarettes a day. He is also a fearsome competitor who resorts to kicking, biting, gouging, scratching, and hair pulling in order to win. When really pressed, he has also been known to beg, plead, whine, and sob piteously. Can your pusillanimous little wimp of a chairman stand up against the martial valor of our giant?

Best regards,

Herbet D. Kelleher

CEO, Southwest Airlines 

A date for ‘Malice in Dallas’ was soon set for March 20th 1992, which began a series of PR opportunities for both sides. At 38, Herwald had an obvious physical advantage over the 61-year-old Kelleher but Stevens Aviation still decided to film and release a series of promotional videos where he engaged in squats, curls and deadlifts. Kelleher’s approach was slightly different; he’d defeat the young upstart with old school brute strength. He was a true Texan and all he needed was a cigarette and some Wild Turkey whiskey to seem him through the bout.

 As 4,500 people from both companies packed into the wrestling arena known as the Dallas Sportatorium in order to witness the match-up, news crews from all over Texas were equally as excited to see the result . Herb Kelleher went for a predictably extravagant costumed entrance – wearing a headband, he entered the ring to the Rocky theme tune, smoking like a chimney and flanked by a dozen cheerleaders. Kurt Herwald simply went for a ‘people person’ approach and dressed in a polo shirt and smart trousers, well aware that he was taking on more of a challenger role against the celebrity CEO.

Fighting over three rounds, the first two were undoubtedly staged. Herwald was trounced in round one by Texas’ 1986 arm wrestling champion J.R. Jones, whom replaced ‘Smokin’ Herb Kelleher due to an arm injury apparently sustained whilst saving a small child en route to the arena. Not to be outdone, Herwald put forth the ‘Killer’ Annette Coats from his company for round two, who “crushed” the Southwest Airlines CEO. With one bout remaining it was time for the main draw – Kelleher vs. Herwald. After a spirited 35 seconds which can be seen below, Herwald emerged victorious and a series of speeches quickly followed.

Both companies would donate to the other company’s chosen charity (a $5,000 penalty per round loss) and lo and behold, Herwald’s victory speech stated that both companies could continue to use the slogan. An incredibly lucrative affair for both companies, Stevens Aviation gained 25% growth over the next four years and Southwest Airlines were sent a letter from the President praising their good natured loss. Indeed, even if Southwest Airlines hadn’t ranked number one for that year in customer satisfaction, they’d have had reason to smile regardless; Stevens Aviation’s decision not to sue saved Southwest Airlines around $500,000 in legal fees for a copyright case that they would have probably lost. Thus, you could argue that the entire charade was ‘just plane smart’ for both sides.  



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By Henry Fosdike