Blue Grass Airport has undergone many changes since crash of Flight 5191

Facilities, runway improved; top management replaced

jhewlett@herald-leader.comAugust 26, 2011 

  • Unfinished Journeys: Flight 5191 Remembered
    A multimedia review of the Herald-Leader's coverage of the crash of Comair Flight 5191. Originally published a week after the August 27, 2006 crash. Produced by David Stephenson. Victims' photos start at 3:06.

  • A behind-the-scenes look at the making and installation of the Flight 5191 memorial sculpture. Video by chief photographer Charles Bertram.
  • Coming saturday and sunday

    Get extensive coverage of the Comair Flight 5191 memorial unveiling on Kentucky.com and in the Herald-Leader.

Inside and out, Lexington's Blue Grass Airport has undergone a major overhaul since Aug. 27, 2006, when 49 people lost their lives in the crash of Comair Flight 5191.

But most of those changes — in facilities, personnel and customer offerings — have nothing to do with the crash.

A $27 million general aviation runway, which was completed last year, might have gotten done quicker because of the crash. But the new runway was in the works long before Flight 5191 mistakenly took off from the old general aviation runway it replaced.

The crash "helped put the runway on a little bit faster track," said airport board member Bobby Owens. "I think it placed a bigger emphasis on having that runway built," he said.

The new general aviation runway eliminated a safety issue because it, unlike the old general aviation runway, does not intersect with the airport's longer commercial runway, he said.

Besides building a new runway, the airport has spent tens of millions of dollars more on other new construction and renovations since the tragedy of Flight 5191. Many of those also had been on the books before the crash. In 2010 alone, the airport completed or nearly completed more than $66 million in improvement projects, including a redo of its main entrance; a renovation of the terminal, inside and curbside; a partial rehabilitation of Airport Road; modernization of the aircraft rescue and fire fighting training center; the building of a new taxiway and the relocation of another, in addition to the new runway.

Airport acreage has increased by about 115 acres — to 1,075 acres — since the crash. The airport's new runway sits on a portion of the crash site.

There have been other changes since the crash.

TAC Air, which serves private and corporate clients and provides fuel and de-icing for commercial planes at the airport, unveiled a new multi-million-dollar, 12,000-square-foot facility in July 2010. The Aviation Museum of Kentucky moved into TAC Air's old headquarters on airport property, which gave it much more room for displays.

And the airport operates under a new administration. Michael Gobb, the airport's executive director whose solemn profile appeared in the news in the days after the crash, is no longer at the airport's helm. The tragedy was said to have deeply affected him, but his departure was due to a spending scandal involving his and others' expenditure of airport money. Gobb, and airport directors John Rhodes, John Coon and John Slone, were forced out of their jobs in early 2009 and pleaded guilty to theft-related charges in Fayette Circuit Court last year.

The scandal led to a complete change in top management at the airport and the way various duties are handled.

"Internally, our organization has been completely restructured and has become a more professional, transparent and efficient operation," said Eric Frankl, who replaced Gobb in the airport's top job.

Passenger counts at the airport, both arrivals and departures, increased from 1,025,614 in 2006 to 1,104,558 in 2010. Two new airlines — Allegiant Air and AirTran Airways — began operating at Blue Grass Airport after the tragedy. Several new destinations have been added to the airport's offerings.

While a lot has changed at Blue Grass Airport, there are still many current airport employees who were around when the crash occurred and during its aftermath, and their memories of the tragedy have not been painted, plastered or paved over.

"Of course, the 5191 accident is still on my mind. Every plane I see leaving or arriving here — I always keep in mind that it contains people that are someone else's loved ones," said Blue Grass Airport public safety officer Keith Moore. "While our department can't directly prevent such a tragedy from occurring, we can and do train extensively to swiftly and efficiently react should it occur."

Said Owens, one of only two people currently on the 10-member airport board who were on the board at the time of the crash: "Those on the staff that experienced the horrors of that day — that's something they'll never forget. I think everybody at the airport that had anything to do with the tragedy was affected one way or another, no doubt."

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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