David Hayes

While many young children dream of taking flight, Trans States Airlines Vice President and General Counsel David Hayes made his dream a reality before he could even drive. While still in high school, Hayes got his pilot license so he could zoom over the Lake Michigan coastline around his hometown of Chicago. “I loved flying up into Wisconsin and watching the countryside go by,” he says.

The amateur obsession turned into a professional passion when Hayes launched a post-college career as a commercial pilot with Trans World Express, which later became Trans States Airlines. But when furloughs struck the airline industry after the first Gulf War, he decided in 1993 to go to law school, fulfilling another long-term goal.

Trans States called Hayes back to service as a pilot halfway through law school. But rather than give up one goal for the other, he decided to do both–full time.

“People in my law school classes joked about me showing up in my pilot uniform,” he says. “I would tell them, ‘Hey, if you’re catching the 8:30 flight tonight to Chicago, don’t worry about being late because it’s not leaving without me. I’m the captain.’”

After earning his J.D., Hayes provided outside counsel to Trans States, which operates regional carriers United Express and U.S. Airways Express. Eventually he landed an in-house legal job with the operator that propelled him to his current spot at the top of its legal team. And, until his schedule became too busy in 2006, he continued to fly Trans States planes at least once a month.

“If I was too stressed out, I’d push everything off my desk and check my charts and then go schedule myself for three days of flying,” he says. “It is a stress reliever from my perspective. After all my years of flying, it can still be a great deal of fun.”

Q: What does Trans States’ relationship with United and U.S. Airways mean for your job?

A: Trans States Airlines is an airline all by itself. It has its own operating certificate, its own pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, airplanes, etc. We enter into licensing agreements with major partners.

That relationship provides challenges because passengers don’t understand that they were actually flying on a Trans States airplane–”Well, no, I bought a ticket on United.” We have to give them notice–it’s actually printed on their ticket that this flight is being operated by Trans States Airlines. But it’s supposed to be a seamless product. We’d like the passenger to show up and go on their whole flight, and think they just had a great experience on United or they had a great experience on U.S. Air. They don’t even need to know the name Trans States at all. That would be the perfect day for us.

Q: As Trans States’ sole lawyer, how do you handle the work?

A: I’m a big believer in negotiating with outside counsel–not just recently with the economic downturn but even before that. Relationships between law firms and clients are really important, but sometimes they can get too cozy. If you keep everybody on their toes, you can continue to get the best value for your dollar.

But you certainly get benefits from an established relationship. Those firms already know my business; they already know the players; they don’t have to relearn me. But if you get too cozy, people get into a habit of billing you for routine things that probably didn’t need to be billed. You have to keep an eye on those things.

Second, I’m a big believer in the law student work ethic. I have three law students working for me right now as law clerks. I generally find second- and third-year law students to be spectacular workers. We get a lot of small claims court cases, for example, that can consume a lot of time. Law students are a very cost- effective way of handling those.

Q: How has the airline industry changed since you’ve been with Trans States?

A: We see a lot more government regulation. There wasn’t even a Transportation Security Administration a decade ago. That’s a huge government agency, and we’re very well connected with it because its personnel provide the security for our airplanes every day. But it’s a whole other layer of government we need to deal with and interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Q: What are the primary legal issues you deal with?

A: Layoffs are a huge concern with the economics of the airline industry right now. We’re very fortunate here at Trans States: We just recalled 100 percent of our employees who were laid off in the past two years. But generally, layoffs have been a big area of concern–dealing with the WARN Act notices and all the state equivalents, and dealing with the labor unions.

Also in this regulatory environment, there’s a heightened focus from the FAA and Congress on airline safety in general, and specifically they’re very focused on issues of pilot scheduling and fatigue. And this past year we’ve spent a lot of time working with the EPA. The EPA decided about four or five years ago they were going to manage drinking water on planes, and that’s been quite a daunting event because it’s a whole new government agency that we’ve never really dealt with before. They just issued their final rule in the Federal Register last month. But it was quite a process to get our needs, the EPA’s needs and the FAA’s needs all to fit on the same piece of paper.

Q: Has your company experienced major litigation in recent years?

A: The litigation ebbs and flows. After Sept. 11, there were a lot of cases brought by the government. They were called the 9/11 Backlash Cases. There were allegations that people were treated unfairly because of their heritage or their ethnic background.

Trans States is the only company that decided not to roll over and give in to the government. We knew we hadn’t done anything wrong, so we litigated our case involving the discharge of a pilot. He was discharged shortly after Sept. 11, but that case went on for years. Ultimately we won in the 8th Circuit. While it was very expensive, we were vindicated because we knew we hadn’t engaged in any discrimination.

Q: What would your no-strings-attached dream job be?

A: I’d have this exact same job, but I’d have it at [United or U.S. Air] so when I wanted to push everything off my desk and go flying, I’d be flying a Boeing 777. I’d want the same job, just with a bigger airplane.