Gary Doernhoefer spends a lot of time on airplanes. That’s inevitable for the general counsel of an airline industry association with headquarters in Montreal and Geneva and offices in 60 countries. Add in a commuter marriage to an Ohio college professor currently teaching in Stockholm, and you can see the frequent flyer miles piling up.
But Doernhoefer isn’t complaining. Being up in the air is just fine with him.
In April, Doernhoefer became general counsel of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 230 airlines worldwide. It is his second GC position: Previously he was general counsel of Orbitz, the travel website. He honed his skills in aviation law in his first in-house job at American Airlines, as an antitrust attorney.
Doernhoefer fell in love with flying when a high school teacher who had a private plane taught a ground school class as an elective. But it wasn’t until he had finished law school and was an associate in Mayer Brown’s Denver office that Doernhoefer had the time and money to take flying lessons.
Later, at Denver law firm Davis Graham & Stubbs, with his pilot’s license in hand, Doernhoefer represented the Colorado Airport Operators’ Association. It was the first step in putting together his passion for flying with his love of the law, which would shape his career ever after.
Q: When did you decide to go in-house?
A: [While at Davis Graham & Stubbs] I decided to get serious about being a lawyer in the aviation industry. So I got a job with American Airlines in 1992.
Q: What was it like working at American?
A: The airline industry attracts very bright people. So you have smart clients and really talented colleagues, which makes it a very attractive place to work. And the issues are really cutting edge. Within a few years I was working on the defense of an alleged price-fixing scheme, industry-wide, using the computer systems to signal one another.
Q: What did you learn there?
A: As an antitrust lawyer you are forced to understand the operations of the business as well as the applicable law, which gets you deeply into how the business is run. It moved me into doing more international transactional work from the antitrust side, as American started doing code-sharing arrangements with airlines around the world.
Q: What else did you do at American?
A: American moved me to Washington, as the lawyer assigned to the government affairs office but more in a lobbying capacity. I had to learn the other half of the game. One half is talking to the lawyers and understanding the legal issues. The other half is what is happening politically at the same time. That set me up perfectly for the role at Orbitz.
Q: What challenges did you face as the first general counsel at Orbitz?
A: Orbitz was created by the five largest airlines at the time and almost immediately was under investigation by the Justice Department about whether it created an antitrust issue to have five direct competitors owning a means of selling their product. I had the perfect combination of airline, antitrust and government affairs experience that it desperately needed in its general counsel in the early years. We went through a three-year struggle to put to rest the questions raised about Orbitz, including three congressional hearings about whether Orbitz should exist, as well as DOJ investigations, DOT investigations and state attorneys general investigations.
Within nine months of clearing all that we went public, and within 10 months of that we were sold to Cendant Corp. in a public tender offer.
Q: What happened after the tender offer?
A: Five of us former Orbitz executives created Accertify Inc., which has had a Cinderella story of success in the area of combating credit card fraud for online merchants. The only downside for me was the legal work was not very exciting. It was the same software licensing agreement 45 times. No litigation, no government investigations, no major employee issues.
Q: Why did you take the GC job at IATA?
A: Aviation law has always been a very interesting area for me, and for the first time in my career to be able to take that completely global–the combination of those two things was irresistible.
Q: What is the role of IATA?
A: It really divides into two functions. One is a traditional trade association role. We have a dynamic director-general who takes on issues on behalf of the industry on a global basis. A great example is the recent volcano eruption. Our position has been that the governments and air traffic management in Europe overreacted, closing vast stretches of airspace that was unaffected by the ash cloud and disrupting air traffic across Europe.
In addition, we have a huge financial component.
Q: What is your biggest challenge as GC?
A: The challenge is the global scope of IATA. We have physical offices in 60 countries around the globe. We function in an international way like very few other organizations around the world. One group of issues is the day-to-day support of members in disputes with travel agents in Bangkok or Latin America. The other issues involve the services we provide in the legal area for our membership.
Q: As the new GC, what are your goals?
A: In the past two years, IATA experienced a strong shift from an
organization that enjoyed immunity from antitrust in many jurisdictions around the world to an entity that just complies and does not have immunity. The legal department had its hands full with a tremendous cultural shift and a weak economic environment, so a lot of initiatives were put on hold. As a result, I have a lot of challenges just modernizing the department–deploying modern contract management and matter management software solutions, and figuring out how to keep track of dispute resolution in 60 countries. The second goal is
establishing good relationships with the membership. Opening up those lines of communication early is very important.
Q: Do you still fly your own plane?
A: When I took the job with American Airlines, my wife looked at me and said, “We could spend $80 an hour to fly in a little tiny plane that is so loud we have to wear headsets and smells like aviation fuel and goes 120 miles per hour, or we could travel to an airport and fly anywhere they fly for free.” That pretty much killed my hobby. But it is one of the dreams I have for retirement that keeps coming back, so I am pretty sure I will do that.