Taking flight: Behind the scenes at a Kiwi icon

by Kathryn Crossley04 Feb 2015
Air New Zealand general counsel John Blair talks to NZ Lawyer magazine about representing a Kiwi icon in a dynamic industry.
It was an overseas adventure that eventually led John Blair to his role as general counsel at Air New
Zealand, a position he has held for 18 years. Having started his legal career in private practice in Christchurch, Blair headed to Europe for two years’ overseas experience, but ended up staying for 15 and worked in-house for Drake, Tozer Kemsley Milbourn, and then BTR Group. At BTR Group he ran the legal team for more than six years and undertook many multinational M&A transactions and big-ticket litigation work.
“Then as happens with Antipodeans, it was time to come home,” he recalls. “But the challenge was what would I come back to? The opportunities in New Zealand to do something that matched BTR seemed non-existent from over there.”
By chance, Air New Zealand was looking for a general counsel and Blair is still with the airline almost two decades later. “It sounds like a long time… but the industry and the business change so constantly. You never feel as if you’re getting stale, and everything is a new challenge.”
During his time with the company, Blair has worked on a range of major matters, including Air New Zealand’s alliance with Virgin Australia and earlier attempts to establish an alliance with Qantas. “Those are interesting projects because you just get immersed in airline strategy and also need to understand a lot of economics, which to my surprise I found interesting,” he says.
In the early 2000s, Air New Zealand’s acquisition of Ansett and the Australian airline’s subsequent collapse generated a considerable amount of work for Blair and his team. “It took a number of years after 2001 until all of that really died down in terms of the focus it needed. It was an interesting learning experience in all sorts of ways, and you learn a bit about strategy, a bit about board dynamics and governance, and you learn how people respond in a crisis. A lot really occurred in a short space of time during that period.”
Since 2006, the air cargo cartel inquiry has been a significant source of work, with Air New Zealand responding to investigations and lawsuits in the US, Europe, Australia and at home. Blair lists Air New Zealand’s recent successful defences of the class action and the related ACCC prosecution in the Federal Court of Australia as one of the highlights of his career, alongside being exonerated by the European Commission and the US Department of Justice on the same issues.
In addition to running the legal team, Blair is responsible for Air New Zealand’s insurance program and property portfolio, and also manages board and stock exchange issues as the company secretary.
Like most other in-house teams, over the years Blair’s team has reduced the amount of work it sends to external firms. “That’s been a factor of the growth of the in-house team – not just numerically, but as we’ve recruited we’ve continually been able to recruit more experienced lawyers. We’ve got a very high level of capability and experience in the team, and that’s enabled us to do far more of the work in-house that we used to brief out in New Zealand,” he says.
However, in some matters, such as litigation and finance transactions for aircraft, firms are usually briefed.
Overseas work in jurisdictions such as Australia, America, the UK and increasingly Asia makes up the majority of external legal work for the airline. “We’ll deal with a lot of commercial issues in all those jurisdictions ourselves, but sometimes we need subject matter experts to go to externally to get specific advice on local law,” Blair says.
Having briefed numerous firms during his career, Blair says external advisers need to be mindful of not only the legal but also the commercial implications of an issue. “I get a lot of law firms telling me from time to time that they are very commercial, but when you scratch the surface of that you tend to find that’s probably not as commercial as they believe, or what you might require of somebody working in-house. In my view, where you’ve got a capable in-house team, they’re the ones who are able to make those quasi-legal commercial calls, and more often with specific expert legal advice you just want the legal advice and you make the commercial call,” he says.
“Now that’s not true of all businesses. Many businesses will look to their legal advisers for that combination of commercial sense and legal sense, and what the risk mitigation approaches might be. I think that where you’ve got a capable legal team that is very familiar with the business, they’re just better positioned to make the commercial calls. I think it’s about being able to cut to the chase and deal with the key issues quickly and pragmatically and soundly.”