ALUMNI: Meet Gary Kennedy

Gary Kennedy watched in horror with the rest of the world on Sept. 11, 2001 as terrorists hijacked airplanes in series of attacks that forever changed the nation.

For Kennedy, one of the worst days in U.S. history also had tremendous business consequences: Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles which smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York and Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. were both planes belonging to American Airlines —the company for which Kennedy was employed as an attorney at the time.  

While the country recovered from the emotional turmoil of the attacks, Kennedy started a challenging professional journey of guiding American Airlines through bankruptcy and restructuring.

Kennedy’s time as general counsel during more than a decade of tumult at American Airlines is detailed in a new book released this month, Twelve Years of Turbulence: The Inside Story of American Airlines’ Battle for Survival.

Kennedy, a 1980 graduate of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, will speak to attorneys and alumni attending the Utah State Bar convention in St. George on March 9 about his career and experiences at American Airlines.

In his book, Kennedy chronicles American Airline’s crisis of nearly folding after Sept. 11 to reviving itself through a corporate bankruptcy and restructuring. His story is an interesting case study for those interested in the corporate side of law —it details board meetings, negotiations and the legal strategy behind American Airlines and US Airways officials’ business dealings. (Along the way, a proposed merger between American Airlines and US Airways resulted in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging the merger was a violation of antitrust laws, bringing several new wrinkles to an already complicated case).

Kennedy’s book offers behind-the-scenes insight into some stressful and fascinating work days.

“The story is told from my perspective as general counsel and describes the events that took place at a Fortune 100 company during its darkest days. The airline industry is front page news almost every day. With tens of thousands of flights every day of the year, it garners intense scrutiny and interest among the media and public,” said Kennedy. “The book gives the reader a rare look at the inner workings of this incredible industry.  There are a host of legal issues addressed in the book and for lawyers there are many lessons and take-aways involving crisis management, board governance, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and law firm/client relationships.”

He credits the start of his legal career with his education at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. Though there weren’t any lawyers in his family and he had no exposure to the law in his youth, he knew at 14 that someday he wanted to work in the court system.

He enrolled at the University of Utah as an undergraduate with a major in communication. He also participated on the college’s debate team, where he received a primer on using written and oral communication skills to advocate for clients.

After graduating from law school, Kennedy practiced law at two firms in Salt Lake City before he became in-house counsel at American Airlines, a company he’d stay with for the next 30 years. During his final 10 years at the airline, he served in the company’s chief legal position of general counsel.

“From the first day I started at the airline, I set my goal on becoming general counsel. I figured there was no better job in the world than being chief counsel to the world’s largest airline,” said Kennedy.

Gary Kennedy

Kennedy retired from American Airlines four years ago and then decided to write a book about the experience. He spent 30 to 40 hours a week working on the project.

Besides spending time on speaking engagements related to the release of his new book, Kennedy now spends time in the outdoors, including fly fishing and hiking. He and his wife travel extensively and enjoy South America.

He said he’ll always recall his law school days with fondness.

“I was one of the nerds who loved law school and found the material fascinating,” said Kennedy.  “Professors Bennet and Strachan were two of my favorites and I can still cite the names of cases from their classes, cases like Hadley v. Baxendale and Pennoyer v. Neff.”

“My law school experience gave me the tools I needed to navigate the complex legal issues that I faced as general counsel,” he added.