By LISA CORNWELL
The Associated Press
Friday, September 1, 2006; 2:32 PM
CINCINNATI -- In three months as Comair's president, Don Bornhorst has dealt with court battles, tough labor negotiations and _ most recently _ a crash of one of his airline's planes that killed 49 people.
Bornhorst, who has kept a relatively low profile since his appointment at the struggling Delta Air Lines subsidiary, was thrust into the public eye Sunday as the man leading the company in the aftermath of the worst American plane disaster in nearly five years.
"It's a huge balancing act trying to keep the public well informed and yet be respectful to the families and investigating agencies," said Ron Reber, president and chief operating officer of SkyWest Airlines, another Delta Connection carrier. "It's a heavy, heavy burden, and from all appearances, Don shouldered it very well."
Bornhorst, who attended Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., about 40 miles from the crash site of Flight 5191 in Lexington, heads an airline already in a fight for survival.
Comair is trying to emerge from the Chapter 11 bankruptcy that the company and Atlanta-based Delta filed last year. Its efforts to cut $70 million in costs to restructure has put it at odds with unions representing its pilots, mechanics and flight attendants over contract concessions. Talks are ongoing, and flight attendants went to court and threatened to strike.
Delta announced Aug. 22 that the regional airline it acquired for $1.8 billion in 2000 would have to bid along with other carriers for some of Delta's existing and new regional jet service, putting Comair at risk of losing revenue as well as missing out on new service. It currently handles much of Delta's regional service.
The announcement was made the day before Comair returned to negotiations with its flight attendants. Union representatives said the timing was no coincidence and was an attempt to get unions to concede more in their agreements.
Bornhorst also raised some eyebrows this week with Comair's offer to pay $25,000 per passenger to each family who lost a loved one. The airline said the money is meant to ease immediate financial pressures on families and that accepting the funds does not reduce anyone's right to file legal claims.
Cincinnati attorney Stanley Chesley, who has been hired to represent some of the victims' families, has been critical of Comair's handling of the families.
"Beyond just the money, they are trying to control these people so that they will have a greater feeling for Comair," said Chesley. "My criticism has to go to the president because he is running the show."
Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said the airline is following industry standards and trying to support the families by giving them as much information as possible in private briefings.
While Bornhorst struggled at times to hold back his emotions on Sunday during a news conference, people who know him say he projects an air of confidence and the ability to get things done.
"I've known Don over 10 years, both professionally and personally, and I've found him to be in tune with our needs and concerns," said Dan Tobergte, president and CEO of Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, an economic development organization that deals with Comair on a number of economic issues. "His leadership of Comair is well-grounded with his many years there allowing him to know the business and the issues."
Bornhorst's entry into the airline industry was a natural move. The 41-year-old grew up on land since covered by a Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport's runway, not far from Comair's headquarters in Erlanger, Ky.
Bornhorst joined Comair in 1991 after working as a consultant for a financial professional services firm. His jobs at the airline have included oversight of finance, customer service, marketing, corporate communications, cabin service, supply chain and properties.
He became chief financial officer a few months before the bankruptcy filing and was appointed president in May after Fred Buttrell resigned.
"He accepted a tough situation by taking over a high-cost company that really isn't cost-competitive," said Mike Boyd, an aviation industry consultant with The Boyd Group Inc.
Reber has known Bornhorst for years at Comair and at Delta Connections Inc., where Bornhorst worked from 2000-2002.
"I always found him in business situations to be a sincere and honest young guy," Reber said.
Union leaders declined to comment, citing the continuing negotiations.
Even if Comair and flight attendants reach a deal, the company will need to renegotiate with pilots _ who shut down Comair for three months with a strike in 2001 _ and mechanics. Pilots agreed earlier to $17.3 million in cuts and the mechanics agreed to $1 million, but those agreements were contingent on Comair getting $8.9 million from flight attendants.
In a memo Thursday to Comair employees about Delta's extension of the regional service bidding deadline, Bornhorst said that while it was difficult to talk in the crash aftermath about the next steps of restructuring, "there will soon come a time when we will have to again address these issues.
"When that time comes, I hope that all of us will approach our situation not only with heavy hearts, but also with a renewed resolve to bring Comair through the challenges ahead," he concluded.
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