As a teenager, Donald Broadfield couldn’t have imagined that he’d be an in-house lawyer at one of the world’s largest airlines. He attended the US Naval Academy like his father, an idea his mother was against. After that, he wound up majoring in biochemistry at the University of Kentucky with dreams of being a doctor. But, during a gap year and a period of soul-searching, he had a chance to work for Texas Air Corporation. From that point on, he knew where he wanted to spend his career.
“It’s such an exciting industry,” he says. “It’s always moving, and it connects people from all over the world. When you’re working at an airline, you see people who came from different countries, wonder what they’re doing here and what they’re like. I don’t know of anything that can bring the world together in that way. At Texas Air, I was all over the organization. It’s said, ‘When you get the airline bug, you’re bitten,’ and that’s true. It does get in your blood.”
His experience at Texas Air inspired him to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law. His first professional stop post-graduation was at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, where he handled complex litigation for six years and got a feel for navigating different personalities and dealing with big clients and high-pressure situations.
It was the perfect training ground for the early career attorney and gave him the skills he needed to move in-house at American Airlines in 2004. He started as an antitrust counsel, but weeks into his tenure at the company, he was asked to take on intellectual property (IP) matters. While he had some previous exposure to IP, it wasn’t connected to the work he was being called to do.
“Everything is fast paced at an airline, and it’s not like I had time to sit and figure out and learn IP,” Broadfield says. “But it was a great experience because from the nexus of my antitrust and IP work, I got to touch marketing, distribution, social media, cyber fraud, contracts, and more. It prepared me to take on more and taught me how to learn fast.”
Since joining American Airlines, Broadfield witnessed the evolution of airline travel post September 11, 2001, economic hardship of the 2000s, the increasing prominence of social media, a shifting regulatory landscape, and a global pandemic. Amid those challenges, he helped leaders in the company understand the value of IP, one of his proudest career accomplishments.
“For a while, IP had been neglected and many weren’t focused on advancing it or broadening what they had,” he explains. “People often have a hard time associating any real value with it, but when you hear a theme song, see a poster, or read a publication, it all goes to branding. When people see or hear that content, they automatically think of something. They associate one quality or another with that name, encapsulating a lot of feelings and there’s a major investment that goes into that.”
Broadfield’s commitment allowed the company to turn a neglected IP portfolio to one that was eventually collateralized during the pandemic. To reach the best results, he often serves as much as an educator as he is an attorney.
“The difficulty is making leaders understand that the money they are putting in to protect IP and advance it will bring back multiple of what the investment was,” he says. “Patience is the biggest thing. Not only do I end up training and teach them, but I also often have to do it for new people since turnover is really high in the industry right now. It’s a continuous process of training a new set of people about the value, and it has to be a constant effort.”
An increase in cyberfraud threats since the pandemic has made those efforts more important than ever. Currently, Broadfield and his team are working on a number of litigations to help better protect customers from them.
“Since the pandemic, more nefarious threats have ballooned,” he observes. “We’ve seen fraudsters pretending to be booking agencies, changing customer’s booking, and charging like $3,000 for doing it. We’ve also seen entities pretend to be American Airlines and dupe people into sharing their personal information.
“We try to stay proactive by investigating everything that comes through,” he continues, “finding the common thread, and prosecuting the ones we can while also frustrating the fraudsters in different ways. It’s not a cheap investment, but we do it to protect our customers and to protect our integrity.”
Broadfield’s partners recognize his creativity and commitment to the role. “Don excels at providing a clear vision for handling complex IP matters through his long-term strategic thinking combined with his vast experience in and passion for the industry,” says John Campbell, principal at McKool Smith. “His knowledge of all aspects of the airline business and ability to quickly understand patented technology is truly impressive.”
Broadfield advises young attorneys to be proactive in the pursuit of their goals. “Don’t wait [for] the project to be handed to you,” he says. “Look for opportunities, and when you get them, own it. Do it your way.”
Recent Highlights from American Airlines
2016: Celebrates its 90th birthday
2017: Air Transport World names American its 2017 “Airline of the Year”
2019: Celebrates 75 years of cargo operations
2020: Accelerates its fleet simplification initiative with the retirement of 5 fleet types
2021: Celebrates its 95 birthday by helping to grant 95 wishes with a donation of 10 million AAdvantage miles to Make-A-Wish
2022: Becomes the first global airline to receive validation from the Science Based Targets initiative for its 2035 greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets
2023: Air Transport World names American Airlines the 2023 “Eco-Airline of the Year”