The airline business is so tough, the saying goes, that the only way to make a million bucks is to start with 10 times that. David Neeleman began JetBlue Airways in 2000 with an unprecedented $130 million. Launching a customer-oriented, low-fare airline on the cusp of what turned into the greatest crisis in U.S. aviation history was genius: this year JetBlue will become the first low-cost airline since deregulation in 1978 to so quickly become a major carrier, with more than $1 billion in revenues.
With a top-class product (new airplanes, leather seats and live TVs onboard), JetBlue challenged the skeptical perception of new airlines. But Neeleman, 43, also changed the reality: his obsession with employee happiness and customer service (when a blackout in August 2003 shut down most airlines, Neeleman drove out to the tarmac to beg for fuel) has set JetBlue apart from the rest of the industry. His motto: "Bring humanity back to flying." The legacy airlines, which haven't made a dime since 2001, can't beat JetBlue, so they've started their own look-alike versions of it. But none of them have a Neeleman.