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Not every CEO happily describes himself as a "feckless, witless idiot," and urges the reporter to print it.

Not every CEO is on a first-name basis with every employee.Not every CEO has asked a group of pilots, during a job interview, to drop their trousers.

But not everybody is Herb Kelleher - the guy Fortune magazine named as America's best CEO in 1994.

Tuesday, as the chairman and chief executive of Southwest Airlines celebrates the airline's 25th anniversary, he and his employees have plenty to celebrate.

They've got the most successful airline in America, with 23 consecutive years of profitability. While the airline industry trudged through its worst downturn in the first half of the '90s, Southwest was the only U.S. carrier to keep making money - even as fares fell dramatically.

It's no longer the tiny upstart it was in 1971, when it was fighting Continental, American, Braniff and Trans Texas airlines for intra-Texas service. In adolescence, it moved into the Southwest and California, becoming a regional carrier.

In the 1990s, it moved up to the majors. And in the past few years, Southwest's route system branched out into the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast, the Midwest, the Great Lakes region and - just last month - New England. It's biggest headache: finding enough airplanes to handle the growth.

The theme of the celebration is "Still nuts after all these years."

A reference to the packets of peanuts passengers get instead of a meal? Perhaps, but that's not the response you'd get if you asked a typical Southwest employee what the "Still nuts" theme refers to.

"I think 99 percent of them would say the mental health of our chairman. Most definitely," said Lezli Goheen, area marketing manager in Seattle.

Odds are, the other 1 percent would say something like, "Yep."

Southwest's corporate culture is built on love.

Its home base is Dallas' Love Field. Its stock symbol is LUV. Its peanuts were once called "Love Bites." Kelleher routinely hugs female staff. They hug back.

Love pops up frequently in the employee magazine, and even in the company's annual report. In May 1995, during Kelleher's visit to one airport, his sole, unpublicized mission was to take his front-line gate agents, reservation clerks and other employees-in-the-trenches to dinner.

Kelleher emphasizes that the No. 1 qualification for any new employee is a sense of humor. While the story may be apocryphal, he claims that once, when three prospective pilots - all male - appeared for their job interviews, he suddenly asked them to drop their trousers. Those who hesitated did not get the job.

Humor even infects the company's marketing.

A few years back, Northwest Airlines disingenuously claimed to have the highest customer satisfaction rating among the top seven airlines, based on Department of Transportation statistics. Southwest, the No. 8 airline, had scored substantially higher.

Kelleher responded with full-page ads that read: "After lengthy deliberation at the highest executive levels, and extensive consultation with our legal department, we have arrived at an official corporate response to Northwest Airlines' claim to be Number One in Customer Satisfaction: Liar, liar. Pants on fire."

Above all, Kelleher - helped by deregulation of the airlines beginning in 1978 - redefined the industry. While other airlines tried to entice passengers away from other carriers, he was trying to entice them out of their cars.

During the past year, for example, one-way, one-day advance purchase fares to Oakland and San Jose from Tacoma dropped briefly to $22. In a car, that will buy you a tank of gas and get you as far as Eugene, Ore. - meals not included, of course.

Even at more routine fares - say, $59 each way - flying still turns out to be a bargain, both in money and time.

On one recent Thursday, passengers on a sparsely populated, midmorning flight to San Jose were asked by the flight attendant if they would mind all taking window seats.

"That way, when we cruise past our competitors, they'll think our planes are full," she said.

In a recent interview - the one where he described himself as a "feckless, witless idiot," Kelleher started wondering aloud, and not-too-seriously, whether it made sense to keep buying planes from a company that, in 1971, was reckless enough to finance Southwest's first 737s.

Kelleher's answer, absolutely serious, is yes. Southwest, as its billboards and employee T-shirts boldly proclaimed when it entered the Seattle market two years ago, is "100 percent Boeing."

It was one of the novel concepts that Kelleher introduced, and stuck to. A fleet with only one airplane model lets you save on training, maintenance and inventory. So does a route structure that flies point-to-point while the rest of the world was converting to hub-and-spoke. So does offering peanuts instead of a meal.

His innovations were so effective that a host of upstarts have mimicked his airline. When a Salt Lake travel agent decided to start Morris Air a decade ago, she deliberately mimicked Southwest's operations. And she tailored Morris' route system so that it would dovetail nicely if Southwest expanded northwestward.

A shrewd move. In 1993, Southwest bought Morris Air, acquiring its fleet and gaining a toe-hold in a lot of airports it hadn't served. It was a nice fit.

One convention some businesses have let fall by the wayside - putting customers first - is one Kelleher clings to tenaciously.

He tells of a dog-food company that came out with the most nutritious, best-packaged and best-advertised dog food in history. Six months later, the company went out of business.

Dogs didn't like it.

The secret to running any great business, Kelleher says, "is to ask the dogs what they want."

Not that every customer is always right.

One customer wrote Kelleher to complain that the toilet paper came from beneath the roll rather than over the top.

Kelleher's reply: "What the hell were you doing upside-down in our bathroom?"