June M. Morris, who built a travel empire in Utah, dies at 90

Morris founded a travel agency and one of the country’s first discount airlines.

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) June M. Morris, pictured in 1997, founded Morris Travel (now part of Morris Murdock Travel) and Morris Air, a no-frills airline that was later bought by Southwest Airlines. Morris died July 23, 2021, in Salt Lake City, at age 90.

June M. Morris, who built one of Utah’s most successful travel agencies and a discount air carrier that competed with the big airlines, has died.

Morris died Friday, July 23, at her home in Salt Lake City, her family wrote in an obituary posted online Tuesday. No cause of death was listed. She was 90.

Morris started her travel agency, Morris Travel, in 1970, at a desk in her husband’s photo-finishing business. She grew the company into a powerhouse in the industry, challenging the more-established Murdock Travel, which at the time handled travel arrangements for officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 1990, she sold her interest in Morris Travel to her employees. By that time, it had become the biggest travel agency in Utah, with 500 employees, and the 16th largest in the country. In 2000, Morris Travel merged with its former rival, becoming Morris Murdock Travel.

One of Morris’s most prominent hires was another Utahn, David Neeleman, who at 23 was a college dropout and a proprietor of several failed travel businesses. Later in his career, Neeleman was a co-founder of WestJet Airlines and JetBlue Airways, and in 2018 launched Breeze Airways, with headquarters in Cottonwood Heights.

In 1984, at Neeleman’s suggestion, Morris Travel started buying advance seats on aircraft charters bound for Hawaii and Mexico. The company gambled, successfully, that it could fill those seats. The charter service was named Morris Air in 1987, and spun off from the travel agency in 1989.

Morris Air targeted customers who June Morris called the “Walmart crowd.” As she told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1995, “we have stimulated travel among people who have never been on an airplane before. Their options were Greyhound or their car.”

Morris Air’s flights were no-frills, and the company scrimped wherever it could. Instead of serving meals on flights, Morris Air served bran muffins or packets of peanuts (a practice major airlines later adopted for shorter flights). At the gate, their agents would hand passengers reusable plastic boarding passes instead of assigned seating, an idea Southwest Airlines later popularized.

The company’s then-president, and June Morris’ son, Rick Frendt, said in 1995 that such practices saved Morris Air $135,000 a week. By late 1992, the company had sold $229 million in tickets, served 22 cities and owned 21 Boeing 737-300 jets — and June Morris was the only woman CEO of a major airline.

The bigger airlines sometimes weren’t happy with Morris’ tactics. In the early ’90s, Delta Air Lines mounted an ad campaign mocking budget carriers like Morris by showing ticketless passengers ready to sprint for a good seat. Alaska Airlines complained to the federal Department of Transportation in 1992 that Morris was violating federal regulations by acting like a major carrier; Morris Air paid regulators a $100,000 fine, but within months got certified as an airline.

Southwest Airlines, which set the bargain model Morris followed, took a different approach to the competition. In December 1993, Southwest bought Morris Air, for a reported $128.5 million. Morris sat on Southwest’s board of directors up to her retirement in 2006.

While Morris Air’s representatives were meeting with Southwest to finalize the deal, June Morris was getting bad news from her doctor: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. Within days, she checked into a treatment center in Texas for a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation that, she was told, might have killed her.

“What was absolutely disgusting about [the cancer] was that I love my life,’' Morris said in 1995. “I just absolutely love living, and I wasn’t ready to die. I just said, ‘Let’s go with it.’”

After nine doses of chemo, losing her trademark red hair and suffering a slew of side effects, Morris recovered. After her treatment, she told the Tribune, “if I didn’t think I was tough before, I do now.”

Morris summed up her formula for success simply. “You have to be willing to work hard, love what you do and work well with your associates,” she said in 1995. “And then you have to be lucky.”

Lorna June Mayer was born in Manti, Utah, on April 27, 1931, in the height of the Great Depression, to James Peter Mayer and Loy Maylett Mayer. She grew up on the family’s sheep farm outside Gunnison — and she recalled how any time she heard an engine overhead, she would look up from her chores and watch planes cross the sky.

In the winters, the Mayer family would move into nearby Redmond, so the children could attend school. When June was 12, her mother moved the children — June, her brother Frank, and sisters Katheryn, Verda and Dorothy — to Salt Lake City, where Loy started selling real estate while her children got an education. June Mayer attended Bryant Junior High and graduated from West High School in 1948.

The same year, she married Robert W. Frendt. They had a son, Richard W. Frendt, in 1950. June and Bob Frendt divorced in 1962.

In her 20s, June Frendt learned typing and stenography at Stevens-Henager Business College. In her 30s, as a divorced working mom, she got a job on the travel-planning desk for what’s now called AAA — beginning her career in the travel industry.

In 1969, June delivered an airline ticket to Mitch Morris at his Holladay apartment. He invited her to join him and some friends for a birthday dinner. Four months later, the pair married in Reno, Nevada, with a ceremony that happened so fast, Mitch Morris said in 1995, “I still had 10 minutes on the parking meter.”

It was Mitch, seeing June’s frustration at being a full-time homemaker, who encouraged her to start her own travel agency. At first, Morris Travel was a family affair; the first employee was June’s sister, Dorothy, and June’s son, Rick Frendt, worked at the company part-time through college, then full-time starting in 1978 — eventually becoming the company’s president.

Morris is survived by her sons, Richard W. Frendt and David M. Morris, and her daughter, Sara Morris Munyon; 11 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Mitch Morris died in 2011; June’s siblings — Frank J. Mayer, Katheryn M. Whitney, Verda Hansen and Dorothy M. Hadden — died previously.

Funeral services are set for Saturday, July 31, at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park and Mortuary, 3401 S. Highland Drive, Salt Lake City. A reception begins at 4:30 p.m.; the memorial service starts at 6 p.m.