Nonstop Service to Data Rights

A legal leader at American Airlines details the strategy behind securing its digital property

More than eighty years ago, several small airlines combined to form what is now the world’s largest airline in the United States, with a fleet of more than 900 that each day operates more than 6,700 flights that carry more than 400,000 passengers. Together with its affiliates, the company serves 350 destinations in more than fifty countries. American operates hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Miami, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Charlotte, North Carolina. And at American’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Donald Broadfield protects American’s commercial data as chief intellectual property and data counsel.

Donald Broadfield, Chief Intellectual Property & Data Counsel of American Airlines

Broadfield knows maintaining the proprietary nature of American’s commercial data is crucial for the company. For example, flight information is important because it pinpoints what is happening to each aircraft from the minute it pushes back from a gate to the minute it arrives at its destination. “That information is highly valuable, and in particular, arrival times can benefit the company, the passengers, and other companies involved in the passenger’s trip, such as hotels and rental car companies,” he explains. “Similar data received from third parties might be stale as a delayed feed or incomplete. We protect the integrity of American data and provide access to the data to the flight information in a real-time basis.” For example, if a passenger books a midsize car and the rental company has two left on the property, knowing exactly when the flight lands helps coordinate availability to ensure a car is ready when the customer arrives.

Did You Know?

American Airlines may offer in-flight movies to its passengers, but it has played its own role on the big screen as well. While historic aviator Charles Lindbergh flew the first American Airlines flight that transported US mail from St. Louis to Chicago in 1926, the airline company continued to establish itself as a national icon throughout cinema. In particular, American Airlines makes appearances in pop culture’s recent history.

In the 1990s, John Hughes’s Home Alone trilogy showcased the airline in several scenes, and it even sponsored the original home video releases. Then, in 2009, American Airlines partnered with Paramount Pictures to feature its aircraft in the film Up in the Air, starring George Clooney and Anna Kendrick. Again, in 2013, American Airlines banded together with Disney to promote the animated comedy Planes. The collaboration included the brand’s cameo appearance with the airliner character named Tripp.

Yet, flight data covers only part of the intellectual property landscape over which Broadfield presides. In 2004, American Airlines wanted to drive more business to its website due to booking fees that the company paid to global distribution systems. “At the time, we found that a lot of entities were scraping our information and touting themselves as our agent, even though they weren’t,” he says. To protect its relationship with the passenger and to retain that significant amount of money, the more bookings the company drives to, the more it saves and the more it’s able to personally interact with its own customers.

That initiative became the cornerstone of Broadfield’s philosophy: just as a person owns his or her personal information, a corporation owns the information it produces. “Data is created by American Airlines every second of every day,” he says. “We’re not talking about the personally identifiable information of an individual. We’re talking about commercial data—goods, services, and our offerings—which is ours and vital to us. So, we take actions to protect it.”

Working with the client, he developed a two-pronged strategy that consists of first attempting to get third-party data scrapers under license as official agents and then litigating against those scrapers who continued to not comply with American’s terms and conditions. “Often the initial gut reaction is that you can’t own commercial data,” Broadfield says. “Well, we believe you can, so we get the courts past that point by showing what we’re doing with it and what we hope to accomplish.” Broadfield, alongside his legal team and outside counsel, pieces together arguments based on common law and intellectual property.

Broadfield describes commercial data as the new oil, and almost every company produces its own valuable, yet vulnerable data that’s ripe for the taking by outside companies. He explains that these third-party data brokers often don’t generate data themselves but obtain data elsewhere by scraping another company’s e-mails or using Internet browser cookies to track visitors to the other company’s website. “A company must protect its data against those intrusive kinds of gathering methods,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s going to find that it is less relevant in the marketplace because someone else is controlling the consumer relationship.”

Landing Where He’s
Meant to Be

Before opting to go in-house for American Airlines as an antitrust and intellectual property counsel in 2004, Donald Broadfield had been working at the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Washington, DC, as an associate. Joining American Airlines was a full-
circle moment for Broadfield, who had worked in the airline industry at Texas Air—the former holding company of Continental, Frontier, People Express, and a few other airlines—before earning his JD from Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

The airline industry itself is the linchpin of the global economy because it facilitates the transportation network of people and cargo around the word. When what’s going on in the world affects an airline, it affects all other industries’ ability to move products or conduct business. Through that lens, commercial data becomes even more important, Broadfield says, especially considering airlines use data to increase operational and economic efficiency.

As for Broadfield, he appreciates how there has never been a dull day within the legal department, where he’s worked for thirteen years. “Within my first thirty days on the job, I was tasked with taking on the intellectual property work, given the challenges it was facing at the time,” he says. “So, my first task was to conduct an audit to determine the lay of American’s intellectual property landscape. In addition to the intellectual property, I am responsible for complex commercial litigation, plus anything with a nexus to that—like distribution, marketing, and social media.” In that role, he strengthened the American Airlines trademark portfolio and litigated and settled suits against Yahoo and Google over branded keyword search terms.

Although he prepares for each day, Broadfield admits that the volatile nature of the airline business means that his daily tasks are often unpredictable, including counseling, agreements, risk management, and litigation—the whole gamut within that area of law.

Now, Broadfield oversees about a dozen direct reports, whom he leads through mentorship to help fortify American Airlines’ commercial data future. Looking ahead, he aims to advance an industry standard for commercial data protections and expand it outside the courts into legislation.

“I can see how the arguments I make for commercial data can carry over into the arguments for increased protections on private information as well,” he says. “Everyone thinks of airlines as solely flying aircrafts and transporting passengers, but commercial data is a big aspect of what we distribute every day to our agencies in support of our customers and of our business.”

“Don is exceptional and tireless in his protection of American and its extraordinary brand. We are very proud of his accomplishments and honored to be part of his team.” —Bert Ocariz, Shook, Hardy & Bacon