Although struggling financially, Comair and its parent, Delta Air Lines, moved quickly yesterday to respond to the crash of Flight 5191 near Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport.
Comair President Don Bornhorst, an Erlanger native and graduate of Eastern Kentucky University who became Comair’s president in May, held press conferences near Comair’s Northern Kentucky headquarters and in Lexington to express the grief of airline employees over the accident.
Bornhorst described his feelings as “complete emotional devastation,” and later said: “I’m fearful my words here today cannot adequately express the sadness we feel.”
He said the airline’s immediate goals are to assuage the grief of the victims’ and survivor’s families, and to cooperate in the investigation.
It was not clear whether the crash and the federal investigation will affect Comair’s ability to emerge from the Chapter 11 bankruptcy it entered last year with Delta, which had lost more than $11 billion since 2001.
“You are already in a negative situation and then another negative thing happens,” University of Kentucky economist John Garen said yesterday. “Obviously, it’s not going to help them.”
Comair and Delta dispatched crash-response teams to Lexington, where Flight 5191 originated, and to Atlanta, its destination, to assist victims’ families.
The airline also said it will take victims’ families to Lexington and provide lodging for them at Lexington’s Crowne Plaza Campbell House.
General Manager Gerry van der Meer said the Harrodsburg Road hotel began preparing at 8 a.m. yesterday to provide space for guests of the airlines.
But some crash victims’ family members were critical of how they were treated.
David Taylor, son of London businessman Mike Finley, complained about the lack of information. Finley was on the flight.
“They need to be a little bit more organized when they have press conferences and when they move families,” he said.
Rick Queen, whose father-in-law, Leslie Morris, was on the flight, said he was upset by the brief, impersonal response of Comair and the city.
“They just brought us all into a room like a herd of cattle,” Queen said. A Comair official stood up and said there were no surviving passengers, he continued. The victims’ families were given a toll-free number to call, and the briefing ended.
“I’m in shock, being a resident of Lexington, that they’ve handled it this way,” Queen said.
Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx called early complaints about response to victims’ families “completely understandable.”
Marx said response teams are made up of employees who have been trained to listen to victims and fulfill basic needs, such as clothing, food and flight arrangements.
Rabbi Marc Kline of Temple Adath Israel was consoling families at the Crowne Plaza. He said that as airline officials entered the conference room to confirm the deaths, a man yelled something like “You’d better give us some news, because I’m getting more information from my cousin in Kansas than from you.”
Kline said by the time the airline confirmed that no passengers survived the crash, the families had heard from the news media and friends that a crew member was the only survivor. “People were hearing about it from everybody but the airline,” he said.
From a business standpoint, the crash could hardly have come at a worse time for Delta and Comair. They have slashed thousands of jobs, eliminated a fourth of Delta/Comair flights out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and are attempting to renegotiate contracts with employees’ unions.
On Tuesday, Delta said it will seek bids from Comair and other regional carriers to operate 143 of its routes, including some now operated by Comair.
Bornhorst told The Associated Press that Delta’s plan to bid the routes makes it crucial that Comair complete its restructuring as soon as possible.
“We will grow or we will shrink,” he said, “but the status quo will not continue.”