Will longer runway at Aspen airport be any safer?
June 23, 2010
ASPEN – Extending the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway has been touted as a way to boost air service efficiency, but a handful of pilots questioned Wednesday whether the longer runway would make the airport any safer.
Pitkin County commissioners had been scheduled to review the project, but tabled the matter to July 14 for procedural reasons. Commissioners voted Wednesday to rezone several parcels at the airport that either had improper zoning or no zoning, but that rezoning is not yet in effect. The county doesn’t take up development applications until the proper zoning is in place, advised County Attorney John Ely, suggesting commissioners delay the discussion.
Commissioners did, however, hear from several citizens who showed up to voice their opinions, including three pilots who posed safety questions and suggested a longer runway could be less safe. Some attendees questioned the need for the project.
The plan calls for extending the runway from roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet, adding an additional 1,000 feet on the southeast end, closest to town. The added length would allow the commercial jets that currently serve the airport to fill more seats with passengers without bumping up against weight restrictions.
Lengthening the runway would also improve aircraft safety, according to a resolution that commissioners will consider next month.
But there seems to be debate on that point, said Ellen Anderson, the county’s emergency incident commander.
“It may be that the runway extension is safer. Opinions are all over the place,” she said.
Anderson urged an assessment of the possible worst-case scenario at the airport and how the runway project affects the odds, however minute, that such a disaster would occur. Buttermilk Ski Area, just south of the airport, can see crowds of 10,000 people during the Winter X Games, she noted.
Though commercial and private aircraft usually land at the airport from the northwest, and typically take off in that direction as well, planes sometimes circle town and approach to land from the southeast, crossing in front of the base of Buttermilk. Infrequently, they also take off to the southeast. Wind direction dictates the direction of takeoffs and landings.
“I happen to think that is a dangerous situation today,” said pilot John McBride, predicting planes would make their approach at even lower altitudes as they fly past Buttermilk once the runway is longer at that end.
A crash at Buttermilk on a Saturday afternoon in wintertime “could be the worst catastrophe in the history of Aspen,” McBride said.
Locals Les Holst and Bruce Hansen, former military and commercial airline pilots, both voiced doubts about the safety associated with a longer runway, and Hansen questioned the need for the project.
“There is an obligation to show a public good,” he said, calling the analysis that indicates a longer runway will result in fuller planes “gobbledygook” and suggesting the county was merely spending the money because it can.
The estimated $15 million project would be eligible for 95 percent federal funding.
Holst and airport neighbor Gordon Gerson also predicted the longer runway would be the first step toward bringing larger jets into the local airport, something Aspen voters rejected more than a decade ago.
“I think this is a different tack to approach it,” Gerson said.
“I can’t believe this is really to fill a couple empty seats on United on warm, summer days,” he said.
The benefits to airline service from the lengthened runway would be “substantial,” countered Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry. He dashed over from his office after listening to citizen comments panning the project on television.
Weight restrictions, which don’t allow an aircraft to take off fully loaded with passengers and fuel on warm days, would be eased with the extra runway length, according to Tomcich. Currently, seats that airlines could sell are left empty. It is an issue in both summer and winter, he said.
At present, nonstop service between Aspen and Atlanta is in jeopardy because of the weight issue, Tomcich said. Service from Chicago this summer is nonstop coming into the resort in the morning, but requires a stop in Denver on the return trip because it can’t load up with both passengers and fuel after the day heats up, he said.
Runway length will help both the CRJ-700 jet, used by United for its Aspen routes, and the jet that Frontier will presumably use after it phases out the Q400 turboprop in September. Frontier, now owned by Republic Airways, is studying options for a regional jet that can be certified to fly in and out of Aspen, Tomcich said.
Though airport officials and consultants won’t make their presentation to commissioners until next month, airport Director of Aviation Jim Elwood did refute suggestions that the airport would next be looking at a bigger class of jets.
Both the 95-foot wingspan limit and 100,000-pound weight limit at the airport will prevent the operation of jets that are larger than the type that operate there currently, he said.
“This project is not about new, big airplanes,” he said.
Airport officials will also address the safety questions, Elwood said. He did note that planes approaching from the southeast, near Buttermilk, will not be allowed to fly any lower than they do now, and won’t be able to use the extended 1,000 feet to land under normal circumstances. It would be a buffer for an aircraft having difficulty, he said.
“It’s all good input. We need to answer these questions,” Elwood said.