Airport denies fault in crash

HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITERDecember 1, 2006 

Blue Grass Airport shares no blame in the Comair Flight 5191 crash that killed 49 people, and "the sole proximate cause of the tragic accident ... was the negligent and wrongful conduct of Comair and its flight crew," the airport said in court documents yesterday.

In its response to Comair's lawsuit against it and the federal government, the Urban County Airport Board reiterated its stance that the airport is safe and said that the Flight 5191 crew made a series of errors that led to the Aug. 27 crash.

The airport contended that either Comair failed to provide pilots information about recent airport construction and runway changes or pilots failed to read that information, called Notices to Airmen. The airport uses Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMS, to inform pilots of changes in signs, markings or construction work.

Pilots also failed to devote all their attention to cockpit and taxi procedures, the airport alleged.

The airport said that it cannot be sued because of sovereign immunity, which prohibits lawsuits against government entities in many instances. It is asking a U.S. District Court judge in Lexington to dismiss a lawsuit Comair filed, contending that the airport shares responsibility for the crash.

"As today's filings demonstrate, Comair's lawsuit ignores the law and does not have the facts on its side," airport officials said in a statement.

The airport accused Comair of trying to have it both ways by denying liability in lawsuits filed by crash victims' families but trying to spread blame in the carrier's lawsuit against the airport and Federal Aviation Administration.

"If Comair and (its) insurance company really believe they are not liable, they should not be asking others to share a financial burden," the airport said.

Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said the airline wants to ensure that everyone who contributed to the accident pays their fair share of damages. It has always said it wants to pursue prompt settlement with the families, Marx said.

Marx said Kentucky law is not so clear on the issue of sovereign immunity, echoing what some attorneys representing the families have said.

Responding to the NOTAMS allegation, Marx said that the airline passes on all pertinent FAA and airport communications to pilots. But she could not say whether that indeed happened with Flight 5191, citing the pending investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In October, Comair filed a lawsuit demanding that the FAA and the airport pay part of any settlements or judgments resulting from the crash. Comair said that the FAA and the airport made several errors that confused pilots, who took off from the wrong runway and crashed into a nearby field.

The airport's filing said "literally hundreds of commercial flights and thousands of additional private flights" had successfully departed Runway 22 without any problems. Prior flights to Atlanta in the 5191 slot departed without any glitches, including those on several consecutive early mornings before the accident, the airport said.

Airport attorney Tom Halbleib Jr. of Louisville said yesterday that the airport was in compliance with FAA regulations at the time of the crash, and recently passed an inspection on Nov. 21.

"We have answered their allegations with what we have always said: Blue Grass Airport is a safe airport," Halbleib said.

The airport said Comair and its crew made several errors, which include:

n Failing to observe and follow taxiway and runway signs and air traffic control instructions to Runway 22, the airport's 7,000-foot main runway.

n Not cross-checking the runway heading and directional and heading instruments in the plane.

n Failing to notice signs that would have warned them they were on Runway 26, an unlighted runway that is 3,500 feet long and too short for takeoff by the Bombardier regional jet.

n Not maintaining "proper situational awareness" while taxiing, and failing to direct "all of their attention to cockpit and taxi procedures."

n Not aborting the takeoff after they knew or should have known they were on the wrong runway.

n Not taking appropriate pre-flight, taxi and runway confirmation procedures.

Halbleib declined yesterday to discuss the specifics of the allegations.

"I don't want to argue our evidence in the newspaper," he said.

Discovery, or document and information sharing between the parties, has not yet begun in the lawsuit. But both Comair and the airport are parties to the NTSB investigation, meaning they have access to information not yet released to the public.

The NTSB has not yet released information from the flight's voice and data recorders. Nor has the FAA released recordings of conversations between the pilots and control tower, despite open-records requests from numerous media outlets since the day of the accident. Those could shed light on what pilots were discussing and what they were focusing on before they took off from the wrong runway.The Tragedy of Flight 5191

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