How to Handle Legal for Canada’s Largest Airport

Selma Lussenburg shares her eight steps for success as the general counsel for the GTAA

Selma Lussenburg is responsible for legal affairs at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which operates Toronto Pearson International Airport. It’s no small job, either, for Toronto Pearson is the largest airport in all of Canada. In 2013 alone, it oversaw flights for 36 million passengers, and that number is expected to increase to 62 million by 2033.
Selma Lussenburg is responsible for legal affairs at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which operates Toronto Pearson International Airport. It’s no small job, either, for Toronto Pearson is the largest airport in all of Canada. In 2013 alone, it oversaw flights for 36 million passengers, and that number is expected to increase to 62 million by 2033.

1. Know what you aren’t

Almost a year ago, Selma Lussenburg joined the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) as its vice president of legal and governance, general counsel, and corporate secretary. Before that, though, she served as general counsel and corporate secretary for OMERS, a $50 billion pension fund, and as chief legal officer and chief privacy officer for AT&T in Canada—neither position dealing much, if at all, with air travel. “The aviation industry is new to me,” Lussenburg says. “I look at an airport very differently today than I did a year ago. People often ask me—as I might have asked someone in my position last year—do you get free flights? I say, ‘No, I don’t work for an airline.’”

2. Know what you are

According to Lussenburg, the role of the GTAA is to integrate air traffic, overseen by NAV CANADA, which operates the nation’s civil air navigation service, with apron (where the planes arrive after they land on the runway and taxi to a gate) and terminal operations at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. The availability of runways and spaces for planes to park, the need for Canadian customs and immigration, and decisions about where to have passengers pick up their bags are all important concerns, but, Lussenburg says, “We make it all work seamlessly.”

3. Understand the business

Lussenburg has ultimate responsibility for any legal and governance issues that arise in the GTAA’s day-to-day business, but she’s also a member of the executive team, which sets the authority’s long-term strategic direction. She is responsible for board governance, so she spends a significant amount of time dealing with larger business matters, and as a result, she has invested a lot of time into understanding the operations and long-term strategies that make the GTAA different. “Every general counsel knows you have to comply with the law, but beyond that, how do you best support the business?” Lussenburg says she asks herself. “What are the financial drivers? What does success look like for the organization?

4. Keep up with the regulatory environment

Airports are heavily overseen for safety and security. The GTAA is a not-for-profit entity, but its debt is publicly traded, so from a regulatory perspective, it’s treated like both a publicly traded company and a nonprofit. “We have to provide a high level of disclosure, as public companies do, but we also have a unique mandate to support the regional, provincial, and national economies and keep the travelling public safe and secure,” Lussenburg says.

5. Engage different stakeholders within the organization

As Lussenburg sees it, it’s not good to go off on your own just because you have a great idea. “Even if it’s purely a compliance matter,” she says, “you have to ask, ‘Who’s going to be impacted by the practice or policy? What are the moving pieces within the initiative?’ Then you have to get people at the table talking to each other. I’m a big believer in cross-functional working groups because we all bring different perspectives to the table and it ensures buy-in.”

6. Staff appropriately

Lussenburg inherited an understaffed legal team, so immediately she looked for resources to help her team do its job more effectively. “I was lucky to have three very seasoned attorneys, but there were no junior people, so one of the first things I did was hire a paralegal,” she says. “[Next] I’ll be engaging in succession planning, not because I want anyone to leave the organization, but because the reality is that at some point the current team will retire, and there aren’t a lot of experienced airport lawyers in private practice, so we have to train people.”

7. Delegate

Lussenburg believes it’s important to have trust and empower people so that they will return the favour. “While I have the backs of my team, my team has to have my back, and they do that by communicating to me issues they believe I need to know so [that] I don’t walk into a meeting with the executive team and hear something new,” she says.

As an example, she points to a high-profile situation in which two Canadians jailed in Egypt came back home through the Toronto Pearson International Airport. “My director of safety and security sent me an e-mail that morning with a note that said, ‘You’re going to see media trucks going past your office and wonder what’s happening, but don’t worry; we have it all in hand,’” Lussenburg says.

8. Try to get to “yes”

Though she has never heard a client say, “I want to break the law,” Lussenburg has often heard, “The lawyers won’t let me do it.” “You need to work with your team so they’re seen as enablers to help the business move forward,” she says. “I say to my colleagues, ‘I don’t make the law.’ But I do have the flexibility to interpret it differently and try to find a solution that enables the business to do what it wants to do.”