JetBlue Pilot Applies JAG Skills to Resolve Grievances
By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
F/O Jen Berns (JetBlue) poses with her fiancé, F/O Matthew Hawk (JetBlue).
F/O Jen Berns (JetBlue) has a very full schedule. In addition to being an A320 pilot, she also serves in the Florida Air National Guard as a judge advocate general (JAG). And in her “spare” time, she uses her knowledge and skills as a member of her pilot group’s Grievance and Military Affairs Committees.
“Judge advocate general has the word ‘judge’ in it, but I’m really a lawyer,” said Berns, who’s been in the Air National Guard—first in Arizona and later in Florida—since 2015. In this capacity, she deals with a wide range of cases. “It’s a lot of administrative work. The Air National Guard has limited jurisdiction over its members because of the status the members hold. In most criminal cases, the state will often retain authority over offenses such as theft, assault, or rape.
“Typically, my work focuses more on disciplinary actions—positive drug-test results, discharge boards for fitness or misconduct, an occasional court martial, but that’s rare,” Berns remarked. “It’s talking one-on-one with commanders, trying to negotiate solutions, a lot of writing arguments, and things like that.” Not surprisingly, she isn’t able to share specifics because of attorney-client privilege.
“On active duty, I dealt with more serious crime,” Berns acknowledged, noting that she was in the U.S. Air Force from 2009 to 2015. In fact, during her career, she’s gone back and forth between flying and juridical jobs.
The JetBlue pilot revealed she’s always been fascinated with flying and tried to join the Air Force as a pilot right after graduating from high school. However, she had less than perfect vision and recalled that a recruiter told her, “You’ll never touch an airplane.”
With an undergraduate degree from Tufts University, Berns did some flight instructing but decided to expand her possibilities. She studied law, attending the Brooklyn Law School from 2004 to 2007 and passed the New York Bar exam. But Berns went right back to flying “because I missed it so much,” she said.
Berns was hired by Comair, the former Delta Connection wholly owned subsidiary, and flew for a year before seeing the writing on the wall. The carrier was in financial trouble and had begun downsizing. Recognizing Berns’ concern, a chief pilot suggested she join the military as a JAG because, under federal law, she could return to the airline after four years and still keep her pilot seniority number. “It was a fortuitous conversation,” she remembered, adding, “He gave me a great idea, and I followed through.
“I went active duty and opted to stay in for about six years,” she said, noting her Air Force service included an assignment in Afghanistan in 2012 as part of a NATO mission. Berns then returned to civilian life and flew briefly for Mesa Airlines before going to work for JetBlue in October 2017, where she’s actively involved with the pilots’ Master Executive Council Grievance and Military Affairs Committees.
How does she manage all of this? “My schedule permits me to work on projects between trips,” she revealed. In fact, she’ll be flying as a passenger soon, as she’s scheduled to travel to observe an upcoming system board mediation. Berns plans to use some of the “down time” around the mediation to catch up.
In addition, Berns has some flexibility with her military employers. “The Air National Guard lets me telecommute, so I don’t always have to be physically in the office to assist clients,” she added.
Despite a busy schedule and her upcoming wedding, the A320 pilot observed that helping her fellow ALPA members out as a Grievance Committee volunteer has been particularly rewarding. It ties in nicely with her role as an attorney because much of what she does is contract related. “In law school, I did a lot of bankruptcy and contract work,” she recalled, adding, “I enjoy doing union work a lot and assisting my colleagues.”