This is a good "small world" story: On Feb. 4, Andrea Newman, Delta's (DAL - Get Report) Washington lobbyist, attended the University of Michigan-Ohio State basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., when she ran into American Airlines (AAL) Chief Financial Officer Derek Kerr.

Both are Michigan grads, and their Ann Arbor condos are next to one another. "My husband and I have four seats, there was nobody with us, so Derek came down with his son and we sat together," Newman said.

Going forward, University of Michigan's Ann Arbor arena may be among the best places to find Newman, who plans to retire this summer as Delta's senior vice president of government affairs.

The two things Newman really cares about, besides her family: Delta Air Lines and the University of Michigan. Retirement, she said, will enable her to spend more time in Ann Arbor (she also has a condo in Washington, D.C.) and in her role as an elected UM regent.

Newman is a self-confessed workaholic, working in an industry -- largely populated by people who are in love with it -- that encourages the trait.

"I love what I do, I love the company I work for {and} I love the airline industry -- there's always a new challenge," she said. "{But} I worked hard for a long time.

"I started thinking about {retirement} last summer, when there was going to be a change in administration. When you take your job as seriously as I do, at some point you want to dial back."

Newman's interests (which also include the Detroit Tigers) haven't fluctuated much.

Born in Washington, D.C., she grew up in Birmingham, Mich., and graduated from the University of Michigan and George Washington University Law School. Then she worked for Washington law firms, the White House during the Reagan administration, and the Department of Defense.

In 1992, Newman began doing legal work for Northwest Airlines. Her first case involved a third party's effort to break up the Northwest/KLM alliance. "Somebody tried to take KLM away," she said. They failed.

A Delta plane

Next came one of her favorite projects, working with Former Delta CEO Richard Anderson to get work started on the Edward McNamara terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. McNamara was a longtime Wayne County politician.

"I knew him very well," Newman said. "I'm a Detroiter, I grew up in metro Detroit, so being part of the team that worked on the midfield terminal for Michigan, for Detroit, that was very satisfying."

After Newman worked on the project, Anderson offered her a job with Northwest. She joined the airline in 1995 and was named Washington lobbyist in January 2001.

Like many people in aviation, Newman had her worst time on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the days afterwards. Although Congress quickly approved a $15 billion industry bailout, getting the money to the individual airlines took time and effort.

"I remember not sleeping for four months," Newman said. "I remember how impactful those days were, how awful they were. I was living on the hill with my colleagues -- Rebecca Cox, Will Ris, Mark Anderson, Jim Coon, Lisa Piccione and a lot and a lot of other people -- we were there for four months."

(Cox lobbied for Continental, Ris for American, Anderson for United, Coon for ATA and Piccione for Delta).

"It felt like we were fighting for the survival of the industry," she said. "This was not about one airline or another. This was about everybody, not only us but also our customers and the people we lost. To this day I can't talk about it without emotion." 

On Sept. 15, 2005, Delta and Northwest both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Although some observers viewed the near-simultaneous filings as the first steps toward a planned merger, Newman said, "They were not coordinated. It was a surprise to both companies."

The merger came two years and seven months later, on April 15, 2008. Northwest "was a small scrappy airline, fighting hard to make its way," Newman said. "Delta is a more established brand and had the same type of hard-working, really caring people, the merger was a terrific mesh of people who all worked really well together.

I didn't go from Northwest to Delta," she said. "I went to a merged carrier that was much bigger than either had been before. Everybody got along. It was one of the most successful {airline} mergers in history." A key to the success, Newman said, was that Anderson returned to Delta in 2008 after leaving Northwest to work in the health care industry for four years.

Newman's key accomplishments include working to secure regulatory approval for the 2011 Delta/US Airways slot swap that enhanced Delta at New York's LaGuardia Airport and enhanced US Airways at Washington Reagan National Airport.

While Washington is far more partisan today than it was when Newman arrived, the divisiveness is not a big factor when it comes to aviation.

"Airlines try to work closely with the regions of the country where they have the largest presence," she said. "It's still very bipartisan. Very rarely do airlines have major partisan issues."

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.