Storied CEO of Best Low-Fare Airline
Inducted in 2005
If, as Euripides noted in ancient times, a man resembles the company he keeps, then Joe Leonard’s place in the Hall of Fame is obvious. Endorsing his nomination are a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and a U.S. secretary of labor, each a colleague and friend; and, his aviation peers at the National Air and Space Museum last year made him a Laureate, the rarest distinction they confer. Now chairman and CEO of AirTran Airways, Mr. Leonard mastered Auburn University’s aerospace engineering curriculum first, the art and science of executive management next. Four decades of hard work—and the accompanying hard-won wisdom—have created in Mr. Leonard the most capable and effective CEO in today’s airline industry. The success of AirTran Airways (Entrepreneur Magazine’s 2004 Best Low-Fare Airline) is the proof and many had thought it impossible.
In 1999, Mr. Leonard was persuaded to take on two-year-old AirTran, product of a merger with ValuJet and AirTran Airlines—both of which were struggling. Near-empty gates at AirTran’s Atlanta hub were typical. The airline remained windblown from the storm of deregulation and from turbulence born of labor issues and leaping fuel prices. Mr. Leonard began a measured, deliberate process of winning over value-conscious business passengers. He boldly added gates and acquired the nation’s youngest all-Boeing fleet, successfully negotiating the huge debt he’d inherited at AirTran and avoiding bankruptcy. Like the rest of the industry, AirTran was shaken by the 9-11 hijackings, but steered by Mr. Leonard, it has remained profitable and focused on growth. By decade’s end, it plans to double the 500-plus flights it currently offers each day, and to expand its current 44 regional destinations into a coast-to-coast network serving twice as many cities.
A 1967 Auburn graduate, Mr. Leonard started out at Boeing, flight-testing the 727, 737, and 747. From 1969 to 1982, he was a Northwest Airlines engineer, subsequently becoming American Airlines’ vice president for technical operations. In 1993 he joined AlliedSignal, a key aerospace supplier; a senior vice president, he was ultimately tapped as CEO and president. However, this pause from airline operations couldn’t long withstand Mr. Leonard’s true passion for flying. At only 13, he’d begun parking Pipers and loading crop dusters at the Augusta, Georgia, airport to buy his flying lessons. To this day, he delights in small planes and even aerobatics.
For a time, while a pre-engineering student in Georgia, Mr. Leonard tried chemical engineering studies, seeking an education option he could pay for himself. However, in the end, a Rotary Club scholarship allowed him to enter Auburn’s aerospace program. That investment marked the beginning of a talent that is reshaping the airline business in North America.
Apart from work, Mr. Leonard is a director of the metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a driving force in numerous charitable organizations. He and his wife, Phyllis, maintain residences in Orlando and Minneapolis. Their daughter, Maureen, is an AirTran pilot; son Kevin is a computer expert.