Frontier Airlines legal counsel on her passion for flying, moving from flight attendant to aviation lawyer and being a role model for the Ioway tribe, reports Anne Gallagher
You started your career as a flight attendant for SkyWest Airlines. How did that lead you into a career as an aviation lawyer?
From a young age, I knew I wanted to be both a flight attendant and a lawyer. I grew up on a family farm and would get very excited when the crop dusters we hired would come. They would loop around the farm, flying very low, barely missing the power lines – and that’s where my interest in aviation started. Our farm in Idaho was also on a flight path and I’d watch the planes flying overhead, wondering where they were going.
As a teenager, I had a job at the local hardware store. I saved my money so I could participate in a student exchange program in Leipzig, Germany. That led to my first overseas flight and from that moment on, I was hooked. In my early 20s, I started applying for flight attendant positions and accepted one with SkyWest.
How did you make the transition from flight attendant to aviation lawyer?
While pursuing my undergrad at Rollins College in my late 20s, I read a press release announcing SkyWest had hired its first in-house lawyer. I dialed the main number for SkyWest and left a message for him, saying I would be interested in knowing his story. He – Todd Emerson – called me back and we talked for 45 minutes. He said I needed, of course, to go to law school but also that I should work in private practice for five or six years if I wanted to get hired in-house in aviation. He said I could keep in touch with him as I progressed.
I attended the University of Arizona law school on a merit-based, full tuition scholarship, then attended Chapman University law school to receive my Masters of Law (LLM) in taxation. I worked in private practice specialising in tax and corporate transactions for about seven years. All the while I kept in touch with Todd. When an opportunity presented itself, he suggested that I submit my resume and then I was hired at SkyWest.
My work as contracts counsel for SkyWest included airport operating and leasing agreements; aircraft purchases, sales and lease returns; aviation hull and liability insurance and meeting with insurance brokers and underwriters during renewals; and tax, among other areas. I then went to work in the aviation practice of a private law firm, which all eventually led to my position at Frontier Airlines.
I understand you are a single mother. How did that affect your career choices?
Well, I chose the law school I attended not only because it provided a full-tuition scholarship but because the local school district also had full-day kindergarten, which I needed for my daughter who was five years old at the time so I could attend class during the day. I teamed up with other single parents throughout law school so we could study and help each other with childcare arrangements. In some instances, I took my daughter to class with me because there was no other choice. She did her homework in the law library with me on many occasions or I would study at Chuck E. Cheese while she played. These experiences taught her that whatever your situation, you can do what you set your mind to do.
What did your work as a flight attendant teach you as a lawyer?
Being a flight attendant is excellent training to be lawyer. It’s a true course in people skills and conflict resolution, as you are dealing with all kinds of personalities throughout a flight as well as often some challenging situations. I went through a serious inflight emergency as a flight attendant, and throughout, I remained calm and relied on the emergency checklist; safety is the number one priority in aviation. As a lawyer, whether in-house or in private practice, you need to be able to work with difficult partners or clients, work calmly and stay focused under pressure and resolve complex issues. The people skills and experience I gained as a flight attendant have helped me whether it’s been developing business, or communicating with external stakeholders or various departments of an airline.
In your role as legal counsel at Frontier Airlines, what do you do every day?
I work with all departments throughout the airline on all types of commercial contracts, including those for aircraft equipment, maintenance, airport operations and vendor services. Frontier is owned by Indigo Partners, which has ownership interests in several other ultra-low-cost airlines across the world. So, I have the incredible opportunity to routinely working with the lawyers and operations teams of these other airlines. At this point in my career, I’ve worked on nearly every aspect of commercial airline operations.
You are of Native American heritage. Do you see yourself as a role model for your community?
I am an enrolled member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and there are less than 3,000 Ioway citizens. I very much see what I do, my legal career and personal accomplishments, not necessarily as a role model, but as a representation of the Iowa Tribe. The Iowa Tribe has a number of business ventures and while in private practice, I was fortunate to be able to offer my assistance and meet with our executive committee. For me, it is important to stay connected and involved by learning and preserving our native language through video lessons offered by the Ioway Cultural Institute and visiting our reservation in White Cloud, Kansas. I also took my daughter to our most recent annual Pow Wow and Fall Encampment on the reservation.
It’s important to break stereotypes of who we are, what we do and what’s possible for those in our community. It was a historic milestone when Tobi Merritt Edwards Young, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, accepted a position as a law clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. She became the first Native American to clerk for the high court. I hope to see more Native Americans break barriers in the legal profession.