Airports Council Awards Inaugural Leon C. Watkins “Guardian Award” for Excellence in Business Diversity to BWI’s Ricky Smith

WASHINGTON—Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) today announced the recipient of the 2020 ACI-NA Leon C. Watkins “Guardian Award” for Excellence in Business Diversity: Ricky Smith, executive director and CEO of the Maryland Aviation Administration. The new Guardian Award recognizes a business diversity leader who has promoted the growth and evolution of minority- and women-owned businesses and suppliers, while also fostering the advancement of civil rights and equal opportunities for all within the airport business environment.

“Airports play an essential role in strengthening local economies and promoting workforce diversity within our industry, which is beneficial to the communities we operate within,” said Kevin M. Burke, ACI-NA President and CEO. “I congratulate Ricky Smith for the work he has done to level the playing field and empower women and minority-owned businesses within the aviation industry.”

Over the last 15 years, Smith has served as the CEO of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) and Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE). The Guardian Award is awarded to Smith as a result of his focus on increasing opportunities for minority businesses as well as empowering, motivating and rewarding employees — primarily women and minorities — for new employment opportunities.

“I am deeply grateful and humbled by this honor, which is named on behalf of Leon Watkins, a giant in our industry for his longstanding commitment and lifetime of work supporting diversity and inclusion,” said Executive Director Ricky Smith.  “Throughout his life, he courageously worked to foster equality and encourage full opportunities for minorities and women in employment, professional development, and business participation.  Leon was a friend and mentor to me.  Thank you to ACI-NA for this recognition, and for memorializing Leon Watkins’ legacy in such profound manner.”

Throughout his time in the airport industry, Smith founded several outreach programs including Synergy, which requires airport tenants, prime concessionaires, and professional service providers to attend and negotiate partnering opportunities with small and minority entrepreneurs. He also founded LaunchPad, a program that allows women and minority-owned micro businesses to open retail kiosks without initial investment.

“Leon Watkins’ entire career was devoted to helping minority and women owned businesses that had been traditionally excluded from opportunity.  The spirit of this award embodies all that he sought to accomplish” said his wife of 40 years, Kit Watkins.  She also said that he was cognizant of his legacy.  According to her, a week before he passed he said that he wouldn’t be able to help people anymore and she told him “that it was okay because all of those you helped will help others.”

At BWI and CLE, Smith’s team has increased women in the workforce by 34 percent and 47 percent, respectively, and senior management positions by 129 percent and 167 percent respectively. For minorities, workforces have increased by 44 percent and 42 percent respectively, as well as 300 percent and 189 percent in senior management positions. To achieve those results, Smith committed to partnering with Historical Black Colleges and Universities and minority-focused trade organizations to enhance the airports’ ability to recruit and retain a broad pool of minority candidates.

Smith’s proven leadership and sustained commitment to the values of diversity and inclusion have earned him the ACI-NA Guardian Award for 2020.



About ACI-NA

Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) represents local, regional, and state governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports in the United States and Canada. ACI-NA member airports enplane more than 95 percent of the domestic and virtually all the international airline passenger and cargo traffic in North America. Approximately 380 aviation-related businesses are also members of ACI-NA, providing goods and services to airports. Collectively, U.S. airports support more than 11.5 million jobs and account for $1.4 trillion in economic activity – or more than seven percent of the total U.S. GDP. Canadian airports support 405,000 jobs and contribute C$35 billion to Canada’s GDP. Learn more at