By DAN SEWELL
CINCINNATI -- Delta Air Lines (DAL) is shutting down its shrunken, 35-year-old regional carrier Comair at the end of September as it switches to bigger jets and it is sending termination notices to its 1,700 remaining employees.
Comair is down to 290 flights a day. More than 1,000 Comair employees are in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky region, some 700 of those in Kentucky.
Comair has slashed its fleet, flights and workforce in the last seven years. Delta said the smaller regional planes are expensive to fly because they are not as fuel-efficient and cost more to maintain as the fleet ages.
"We just really couldn't get the cost structure to where we wanted to get it," said Don Bornhorst, senior vice president of Delta Connection and a former Comair president. "It ultimately was a cost issue; it wasn't a quality issue with Comair. They're a good airline, great employees, very innovative ... we just could not solve the cost issues."
Delta, based in Atlanta, had about 500 of the 50-seat regional jets in 2008 and plans to reduce that to 125 within two years. Most of that flying will be done by new 76-seat jets as well as the 117-seat Boeing 717s that Delta is leasing from Southwest Airlines (LUV).
Delta said Friday that it has stopped flying 16 of the remaining Comair 50-seaters, and will lease the carrier's other 28 planes to other operators. Bornhorst said employees have 60-day termination notices. A small group of employees will remain after the Sept. 29 shutdown to handle details of the closure.
Comair handles only about 1 percent of Delta's flying, so the closure won't result in significant changes to Delta's network. Delta also said it won't mean fewer flights out of Comair's base at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Besides Cincinnati, Comair also has hubs in Detroit and at New York's JFK and LaGuardia airports.
"As you can imagine, we're all very sad," said Lynn Dziad, spokeswoman for the Teamsters local that represents more than 400 flight attendants. She marked her 22nd anniversary with Comair just last week. "It's been a wonderful company. A lot of incredible people have worked here."
Kentucky's governor, Steve Beshear, said the Delta action is a blow to the region because of the job losses, and the Democrat called it "terribly disappointing." Kentucky will try to help affected workers, he said in a statement.
"Today's announcement is sad news for Cincinnati, as 300 southwest Ohio families will be looking for new opportunities as Comair ceases operations," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from the Cincinnati area, said in a statement. He said he has pressed Delta to offer opportunities for impacted workers. He added that Delta has committed to keeping up its Cincinnati area schedule, "which is important for Cincinnati's business community as they look for opportunities to grow and build their businesses across the nation and the world."
Aviation analyst Mike Boyd of The Boyd Group said he expected the Comair shutdown, because the regional airline business doesn't work anymore.
"It's not going to turn around," Boyd said. "Delta is quite correctly saying 'We've got to get rid of these uneconomic airlines.' "
Before entering bankruptcy protection in September 2005, Comair had more than 7,000 employees and 1,160 flights. Comair and Delta emerged from bankruptcy reorganization in April 2007.
Forty-nine people were killed when Comair Flight 5191 crashed on Aug. 27, 2006 in a field near Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., after trying to take off from a runway that was too short for commercial jets. The National Transportation Safety Board found the pilots failed to notice they were on the wrong runway.
Delta had talked to prospective buyers for Comair, without success. It sold its other regional airlines - Compass and Mesaba - in 2010. Those carriers still operate flights for Delta, as do several other companies.
Shares of Delta Air Lines Inc. rose 3 cents to $9.44 in afternoon trading Friday.
Samantha Bomkamp in New York, Brett Barrouquere in Louisville, and Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed.