Don Bornhorst credits his father with putting him on the road to a career in the airline industry.
His dad, a teacher, gave Bornhorst 100 shares of Comair stock in the early 1980s, a few years after Comair first flew in 1977 and shortly before Don Bornhorst entered Eastern Kentucky University.
He had grown up in Erlanger, where Comair is based, so it didn’t take much to make Bornhorst a Comair junkie.
“Every paper I wrote in college was on Comair,” Bornhorst, now 41, told The Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this year.
He also remembered a comment made by former Comair President David Siebenburgen when he hired Bornhorst in 1991: “He said: ‘You’re either perfect for the job or a Comair stalker,’” Bornhorst told the Enquirer.
In May, 15 years after he joined Comair, Bornhorst stepped into Siebenburgen’s shoes and told The Cincinnati Post: “This is a dream come true.”
But instead of the profitable, successful business Siebenburgen had piloted, Bornhorst took the controls of an airline struggling to survive -- an airline that sustained its worst disaster on Sunday when Comair flight 5191 crashed on takeoff from Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport, killing 49 of the 50 people aboard.
Bornhorst stepped in front of television cameras at least twice that day to express the airline’s regrets about the accident as well as his personal sorrow at the loss of life. He also pledged Comair’s full cooperation with investigators and support for victims’ families.
What you see of Don Bornhorst is what you get, said Ted Bushelman, director of communications for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where Comair is based.
“You know how sincere he looked? Off camera, he was exactly the same way,” Bushelman said. “I saw him sitting in a car and he had his head in his hands. The guy just feels it.”
Bushelman said Bornhorst tends to be quiet and laid back. He gets along well with everyone from airport managers to Comair employees -- and the unions that represent them.
“It’s strictly his personality,” Bushelman said. “That’s why he does so well with the employees” -- and that’s why he stands a good chance, in Bushelman’s opinion, of solving Comair’s labor problems.
“I’ve been at the airport 39 years and I’ve seen them come and go,” he added. “This guy, he’s good.”
He will need to be.
Comair and its parent company, Delta Air Lines, which bought Comair for $1.9 billion in 2000, are in bankruptcy reorganization, having lost more than $11 billion since 2001.
Comair is facing high fuel costs, management turnover -- Bornhorst’s immediate predecessor, Fred Buttrell, lasted just 16 months -- and a contract dispute with flight attendants that must be settled before it can emerge from bankruptcy.
More problems surfaced last week. Delta announced Aug. 22 that it will bid out some of the feeder routes now flown by Comair and other regional carriers. Then came the crash on Sunday.
Because of insurance, crashes are usually “minor blips on the radar” for airlines, said Vaughn Cordle, CEO and chief analyst at Airline Forecasts in Washington, D.C. Cordle, who grew up in Woodford County, is also a pilot for a major airline.
But for Comair, the Lexington crash “could be devastating in the sense that they are in bankruptcy,” he said.
The roots of the crisis go back to 2000, when “Delta grossly overpaid for Comair,” he explained. Then, fuel prices soared and labor problems developed at Comair, which has an older, higher-paid workforce than many of its sister carriers.
“It’s really killing ‘em,” Cordle said. “Once a commuter airline’s been around for many, many years they cannot compete.”
Delta will not be able to recoup the money it paid for Comair and “they will want to spin that company off,” he said.
Once a commuter airline is spun off, Cordle said, they often suffer because they’re no longer being subsidized by the large carrier.
But if anyone can solve Comair’s problems, Bornhorst can, said Bushelman. “He knows Comair in and out. He has worked there so long.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he added, “if I was starting a company and I needed somebody to run it, he’d be the man, especially if it was employee-oriented.”
Bornhorst was meeting with families of crash victims and was not available to be interviewed for this article, a company spokeswoman said.
His commitment to Comair is total. “I almost feel like Comair is in my DNA -- both professionally and personally,” Bornhorst told the Cincinnati Post in May.
Don Bornhorst was born in 1965 and grew up in a house at Erlanger on land now occupied by a runway of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
“I remember as a kid seeing the (Piper) Navajos that Comair was flying and it was Kentucky’s only airline,” he told the Post in May. “(I was) growing up with airplanes flying around my head.”
He graduated from EKU in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting.
Bornhorst became a certified public accountant and a senior consultant with Deloitte & Touche, a financial services and accounting firm. In 1991, he joined Comair as manager of internal audit and special projects.
“Prior to his appointment as president, Don worked in every operating department at Comair,” says Bornhorst’s official Comair biography.
He also served as vice president of performance management for Delta Connection Inc. from 2000 to 2002 before returning to Comair as senior vice president of customers, a position overseeing customer services on the ground and in-flight.
In May 2005, a year before he became president of the airline, Bornhorst was named Comair’s chief financial officer.
Comair says Bornhorst also has served on the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Board of Advisors. He also works with the United Way and serves on the boards of Boys Hope/Girls Hope of Cincinnati and Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park.
He lives in Northern Kentucky with his wife, Donna, and their four children.