An extra 1,000 feet of runway space at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has more than exceeded expectations for increasing commercial airline capacity, according to Jim Elwood, airport director.
And the additional airline seats have come without using bigger planes or adding more flights.
Elwood updated county commissioners Tuesday on the impact of the $15.4 million runway extension, completed in November 2011.
Increasing the runway from 7,000 to 8,000 feet was expected to ease weight restrictions that forced commercial carriers to leave seats empty, particularly in hot weather, in order to take off from Aspen. The combination of higher temperatures and altitude affects aircraft efficiency; to compensate, carriers cut weight.
In 2008, SkyWest, which operates United Express service into and out of Aspen, calculated that it could fill an additional 13,000 departing seats in June, July and August with the longer runway, according to Elwood.
“We wanted to see if those numbers really panned out,” he said. “The numbers have turned out to be even better than anticipated.”
SkyWest hasn’t done a detailed analysis since the runway extension was completed but has indicated it exceeded a 13,000-seat gain, he said. The longer runway has allowed a “payload increase” of 900 to 1,400 pounds (or three to five additional passengers with baggage) beyond what was expected.
In December 2011, shortly after the extension was completed, a SkyWest spokesperson said the airline had gained capacity for eight to 10 passengers on some outgoing flights in the early going, though the greatest impact of the longer runway was expected during the hot summer months.
The longer runway also led to American Airlines’ decision to serve the Aspen market with connections to Los Angeles and Dallas in summer and winter. The extra runway space makes those long-distance flights, which require more fuel weight, possible.
“We’d been talking to American Airlines for the better part of 12-plus years to bring in service,” Elwood said. “That was obviously a significant positive to the outcome.”
The runway project was intended to aid in takeoffs, but pilots also report less wear on aircraft brakes during landings; they don’t hit the brakes as hard because there is more breathing room, Elwood said. The added space is used only by departing aircraft, but it’s there for a plane that overruns the designated landing zone.
“I think it’s a comfort to all pilots to know there’s a little extra pavement there,” he said.
The extra 1,000 feet of space on the south end of the runway has, however, had greater noise impacts than were projected for five property owners on the west side of the airport, Elwood added. Ways to mitigate that issue are currently being explored, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration paid for the bulk of the runway project; the airport’s share was $2.4 million.