Gary Kelly, the longtime chief executive of Southwest Airlines, will step down early next year, the airline announced on Wednesday. Mr. Kelly has been in the top job since 2004, expanding Southwest into the nation’s largest airline by number of passengers.
Mr. Kelly will become executive chairman and is expected to remain in that role at least through 2026. Robert E. Jordan will become chief executive on Feb. 1, 2022.
“Bob and I have worked side by side for more than 30 years,” Mr. Kelly said in a statement. “He is a gifted and experienced executive and well-prepared to take on this important role.”
The news comes as Southwest, which has been in business for 50 years, emerges from the pandemic, which devastated the airline business. Analysts believe that travel will rebound strongly this summer and Southwest appears well positioned to sell lots of tickets.
The airline entered the pandemic in better financial health other large U.S. carriers. After suffering its first loss in nearly half-a-century last year, Southwest became the first major airline to report a quarterly profit in the first quarter.
Unlike its three largest competitors — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — Southwest flies almost exclusively within the United States. That means its business should recover faster because it is not very reliant on international travel, which is expected to come back more slowly.
The airline has added more than a dozen new destinations since the pandemic began, including at the dominant airports in Houston and Chicago. This month, Southwest revealed it had more than doubled an order for Boeing’s 737 Max airplane next year, committing to take 64 with the option to buy dozens more.
Known for his jovial demeanor, Mr. Kelly, an accountant by training, has led Southwest with a steady hand, successfully guiding the company through the 2008 financial crisis and pandemic. He is widely respected in the corporate world. Mr. Kelly is Southwest’s second-longest serving chief executive, behind only Herb Kelleher, the airline’s charismatic co-founder who died in 2019.
Mr. Jordan, the incoming chief executive, joined Southwest in 1988, two years after Mr. Kelly. Mr. Jordan, 60, helped lead the acquisition of AirTran Airways and the development of the airline’s frequent flier program.
He is executive vice president of corporate service, a role in which he oversees human resources and communications and outreach.
“I’m humbled, honored, and excited to be asked to serve as the next C.E.O.,” Mr. Jordan said in a statement. “The heart of Southwest is our people; they make the difference for our customers, and I look forward to serving them.”