JetBlue’s founder flies again

David Neeleman, the founder and former CEO of JetBlue , launched his fourth low-cost airline Monday. This one is in Brazil. It’s called Azul, which means “blue” in Portugese. It’s a lot like JetBlue: TVs at every seat-back, leather seats, extra leg room, nonstop flights between cities that previously lacked nonstop service.

Who knows if Azul will take off, but Brazil’s economy is growing faster than most (6.8% in the third quarter), and the government there projects 4% expansion in 2009.

Neeleman, 49, has a track record, for sure, and in harsh times like these, he’s an inspiration. At JetBlue, where he owned 6% of the stock, he gave away his full pay each year and never took a stock option. Last year the board fired him, following the airline’s haphazard response during a February ’07 ice storm that left passengers stranded on runways for hours. But nothing seems to get Neeleman down. For his new airline, he’s raised $150 million from U.S. and Brazlian investors. He’s put in $10 million himself.

I spoke with Neeleman at length this spring, for a roundtable interview called Lessons of the Fall. It featured two other former CEOs, Jim Donald of Starbucks and Ed Zander of Motorola , as well. All were quite candid. But Neeleman stood out. A few highlights:

Neeleman’s attention deficit disorder, not diagnosed until he reached his 30s, helped him figure out that he’s better at creating businesses than fitting into established ones. In 1993, five months after he sold Morris Air, his startup, to Southwest Airlines , Southwest boss Herb Kelleher ousted him. “There wouldn’t be a JetBlue today if Herb hadn’t fired me,” Neeleman said. “So it’s really not what happens to you. It’s how you deal with it and what you make of it.” (Neeleman wrote about his ADD in this Guest Post.)

Last year, getting  fired from JetBlue “just about killed me,” he said. “The day that a couple of board members came to my office and said, basically, we want you to step down as CEO and be the chairman and be responsible for strategy, I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it. Just the fact that I was flabbergasted, either I’m the biggest idiot on the planet or maybe the process could have been better.” But he recovered quickly. “Are you going to become a victim the rest of your life? Or are you going to say, hey, there’s nothing I can do about it from this point in time, and I’m going to go on and do something great?”

A Brazil-born Mormon, Neeleman has nine children: seven girls and two boys. What advice does he give them? “Feel your passion. Life is too short to be working in a job that you hate, and for people who you don’t respect. Go find what you love in life and then go do that. Don’t do something just because of the money and don’t do something just because somebody else wants you to do it. Do it because it’s something that you love doing. If you do that, you’ll be the best.”

As for his newest venture, Azul, he characterized it this way: “More insanity. When I left JetBlue, I thought there are two things I didn’t want to do: start another airline and run a public company. The stars aligned in Brazil. There are about 42 million people traveling a year by air,” he said, “I think that number should be closer to 160 million.  There’s 150 million people that go by bus, 14-hour, 16-hour, 24-hour bus rides. We’re going to try and get more people to fly.  If we can do that and raise that number to where it should be, then there’s going to be plenty of business for the two major competitors and ourselves.”

“So, it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be something that hopefully will be the highlight of my career.” What will be different from JetBlue? “It doesn’t snow down there. We’re not going to be de-icing airplanes.”

P.S. To see Neeleman on video, talking about his leadership lesson at JetBlue, click here.

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