Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Name and title: Deborah Ackerman, vice president-general counsel and assistant secretary Age: 54 High-flying airline: Southwest Airlines Co. made headlines last month when it added Philadelphia to its routes. Aviation experts commented that the “City of Brotherly Love” represents the latest front in the nationwide battle between economy carriers such as Southwest and traditional airlines. Based at Dallas’ Love Field, Southwest is now the industry’s largest carrier based on scheduled domestic departures. It ferries more than 65 million fliers a year, on 2,800 daily flights to 59 cities in 30 states. Established in 1971 with just three planes (it now has nearly 400), the Fortune 500 company has 31,000 employees and, in 2003, reported total operating revenue of $5.9 billion and net income of $442 million. It is publicly owned and created the first profit-sharing plan in the U.S. airline industry. Southwest is a five-time winner of the annual industry “triple crown” of best on-time record, best baggage handling and fewest customer complaints, and is a rare success story in the struggling commercial aviation field. It has never had a fatal accident. Fuel saver: Ackerman is proud of her involvement, “from start to finish,” in Southwest’s recent deal to employ blended winglets on its 737 planes. Developed by Aviation Partners Boeing, a joint venture of the Boeing Co. and Aviation Partners Inc., these 8-feet-tall, curved wing tips make planes more aerodynamic and extend their range, lower maintenance costs, reduce takeoff noise and conserve fuel. Jet fuel today represents 16% of airline costs, a figure projected to rise as high as 30%, so the winglets are a significant change. All of Southwest’s current fleet will be thus altered, and new planes will arrive with the winglets factory-fitted. Insurance and taxes: The aviation industry is heavily taxed, and its representatives are involved in an ongoing effort to ease the burden. Ackerman estimates that nearly half of a $100 ticket is earmarked for taxes to various government entities. After Sept. 11, 2001, there have been additional taxes levied to help support the Transportation Security Administration. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also provides war-risk and liability insurance to airlines to cover acts of war or terrorism, but with very high premiums. Even the industry “bailout” ($18 billion) after the World Trade Center attacks was taxable. Most of Southwest’s lobbying related to this area is performed by its government affairs group in Washington, with input, as needed, from the legal department. Exit row rows: Southwest is the only major airline in the nation with open seating (no assigned seats), and this policy has generated friction between the carrier and the FAA. Federal law prohibits physically impaired fliers from being seated in emergency exit rows and also bars from those seats people who can’t understand instructions or are younger than 15. The FAA, in investigating a December 2003 incident in which a disturbed Southwest passenger tried to climb out the emergency exit door after landing, discovered that a disabled customer had been sitting in the vicinity. After assessing previous complaints about improper passengers in the exit row, the FAA issued a “letter of correction” warning to Southwest, a reprimand just below a fine. The airline has responded with handouts to passengers explaining the seating requirements and has instituted specific training for its flight attendants concerning exit rows. It must, however, perform a delicate balancing act of abiding by nondiscrimination rules of the Department of Transportation (DOT), adhering to FAA safety requirements and enforcing the restrictions. Ackerman, though, considers this to be part of “the ordinary course of business” in running an airline. Legal team: Southwest’s legal team consists of 15 lawyers and 12 additional staff members, of whom all but two (practicing in the Washington office with the government affairs department) are based in Dallas. Half of Ackerman’s attorneys are involved in some manner with labor and employment law, “which you would expect in a company with 31,000 employees, about 80% of which belong to unions,” she said. The rest cover “the gamut,” including transactional work, intellectual property, environmental issues and Employee Retirement Income Security Act matters. As for Ackerman, “I used to be a specialist, but now I’m more of a generalist . . . .They don’t call it general counsel for nothing.” Much of her time is spent on labor relations, building relationships with unions and negotiating contract disputes. She also documents and formalizes ways Southwest conducts its business so it can comply with New York Stock Exchange listing requirements mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. Government agencies with which she interacts include the FAA, the DOT and the Environmental Protection Agency. She no longer works with the Civil Aeronautics Board, which was disbanded after industry deregulation. Most of Southwest’s legal work is performed in-house, with only litigation (primarily single-plaintiff employment matters) and very sophisticated tax work going outside. Vinson & Elkins and Bracewell & Patterson of Houston, Piper Rudnick’s Los Angeles office and Phoenix’s Fennemore Craig serve as outside counsel. She described her own team as being well entrenched and very empowered. Route to the top: The native of Santa Monica, Calif., graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1972 and received her law degree in 1979 from St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio. That city’s now-defunct Oppenheimer, Rosenberg, Kelleher & Wheatley was her first stop after law school, and it was there that she met Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ chairman, and Jim Parker, the carrier’s chief executive officer. In 1987, she left to partner at San Antonio’s Cauthorn & Tobin (now Hornberger Sheehan Fuller & Beiter), where she focused on corporate finance work. She joined Southwest Airlines the next year as associate general counsel and considers the day she came to work for it to be a career highlight. She has performed her current duties since 2001. Personal: Ackerman likes to say, “I have two daughters, two horses, two dogs and two ex-husbands and I don’t want a third anything.” Her children are Laura, 21, and Melissa, 14. Last book and movie: The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.