When Dirk Vanderleest was in the third grade, he took a ride on an airplane. The experienced fueled his fascination with airports and set the course that eventually landed him in Mississippi as CEO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA).
Over his career, Vanderleest has won a bevy of honors. But, he received perhaps his highest award recently when the Federal Aviation Administration’s Southeast Region named him the 2008 Air Carrier Airport Manager of the Year.
“I was totally in shock,” said Vanderleest of when he learned that he had won the award. “There have been some truly outstanding airport managers that never won this award, so it is a real honor and a privilege.”
Born in Holland, Vanderleest’s family migrated to the U.S. when he was a small boy. The family subsequently took up residence near Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. It was here that he took his plane ride, and while his school chums might have dreamed of being policemen or firemen, Vanderleest knew his future was going to be in aviation.
To that end, Vanderleest enrolled at Auburn University in aviation management. He was awarded the Charles E. Hanst scholarship from the Southeastern Airport Managers Association on his way to earning his degree in 1982.
Upon graduation, he relocated to St. Louis, Mo., working as an engineer planner for with McDonnell Douglas Corporation’s Aircraft Division. Three years later, Vanderleest accepted the position of airport manager at Huntsville International Airport in Huntsville, Ala., where he would stay for five years.
In 1990, he was tapped as CEO of JMAA, which includes Jackson-Evers International Airport and Hawkins Field. Since then, he has gained a reputation as an astute manager who promotes not only his airports, but also the entire aviation industry.
His list of awards is impressive. The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America presented him with its Best Aviation Lighting Improvement award, and the Mississippi Business Journal named him one of its Top 40 Under 40 recipients. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national disaster medical system chief gave Vanderleest national recognition for his efforts to support the emergency response mission following Hurricane Katrina. He is also a recipient of the Patriotic Employer award presented by the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, and the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership honored him with the Leadership Corporate Award for Exceptional Contribution to Community Development.
The recent FAA award was indeed a high honor. Recipients are selected based on their excellence in airport management, exceptional aviation leadership and promotion of the aviation industry. Winners are also recognized for their achievements in organizational efficiencies and improved productivity.
The FAA Southeast Region encompasses Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee and the Virgin Islands.
Vanderleest earned these honors by staying busy. He has served on a variety of national boards and committees. As a long-term member of the Airports Council International- North America, he has served on the association’s board of directors, chaired the Small Airports Committee, served on the Governmental Affairs Committee, Public Safety and Security Committee, Environmental Committee, American’s With Disabilities Planning and Compliance Subcommittee and the Federal Inspection Services and Facilitation Subcommittee. Vanderleest is a long-term member of the American Association of Airport Executives, and is currently serving his second term as president of the Mississippi Airports Association.
Vanderleest and JMAA were instrumental partners in establishing one of the largest free trade zones in the United States, and Vanderleest still serves on the board of the Greater Mississippi Free Trade Zone.
Vanderleest said today’s airport managers must possess a number of skills and a wide range of expertise. Managers must have people and financial skills. be top-flight marketers, understand government relations and the law and everything in between.
Yet, Vanderleest is quick to give others credit. He praised his board, which he says gives him the latitude to make a decision and see it through to the end. And, he is proud of his team at JMAA, which today numbers 108.
Vanderleest said his management philosophy is letting team members do their jobs, and he works toward creating a family-type atmosphere.
“Airports are serious business,” Vanderleest said. “We need to have some fun sometimes.
“Running this organization is my highest professional achievement. The day-to-day operations, the ups and downs — 9/11 or Katrina.”
When not at work, Vanderleest likes to do a little bass fishing with his friend and theologian Baxter Kruger. He is also an avid reader, enjoying a range of topics from theology to management.
Throughout his career, one constant has been his wife, Anne. They have two sons — Philip is a senior at Brandon High School is plans on attending the University of Southern Mississippi; and, Alex, who may carry on the “family tradition” as he is an aerospace engineering student at Mississippi State University.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.