Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
June 15, 2011
Do we really need a new airport terminal? I may be on the wrong side of history with this one, but I’m not convinced we do.
In fact, I’m pretty sure we don’t.
Let’s be clear: What we have out at Sardy Field right now is certainly not the Taj Mahal of airport terminals, but doesn’t Aspen have enough Taj Mahals already? (Decide for yourself whether I’m referring to West End Victorians, the Aspen Rec Center, the Aspen Mountain Club or the egos of certain unnamed politicians.)
Do we really need to build something new and huge, gold-plated and diamond-encrusted, just so we can haul in more people in bigger jets, faster and more often than we do right now?
If the question seemed too easy, how about this one: Do we really need to make life that much more convenient for people who want only the fastest, smoothest, most convenient?
Or this one: Do we really need to do whatever it takes to make Aspen that much more like everywhere else? (And when I say “everywhere else,” decide for yourself whether I mean Cleveland … or Vail.)
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I know you’ve all heard this before, but I think we need to remember when Aspen used to be someplace special.
Yeah, I know, “the good old days, blah, blah, blah.” But stick with me here.
Way back then, when Adam and Eve were still riding dinosaurs – and flying into Aspen on pterodactyls – “special” actually could include “difficult to get to.”
That really did used to be part of Aspen’s character. You had to want to be here. It was worth the trip, worth the effort.
Anybody can drive to the top of Pike’s Peak. It takes some real character and effort to climb the Maroon Bells. (Not that I’ve done either of those – but that’s beside the point.)
I know, it has long been part of Aspen’s allure that it had its own airport – but that airport used to be a funky little place that was itself damned hard to get to.
Forty years ago, the airport terminal was a nasty shack indeed. I seem to remember corrugated sheet metal. And I certainly remember dark, clammy corridors, clogged with piles of lost luggage and angry tourists wondering if they’d ever get home – or if they’d ever see their bags again.
And I remember going to Denver on Aspen Scareways, in low-flying, slow-moving prop planes that looked like leftovers from the Second World War and felt like riding a couple of hundred miles on a rough jeep road.
But those memories are long past.
I believe we’d had at least two new airport terminals since then.
Things are much better than they used to be (And I’ll certainly join the choir shouting hallelujah! to the glories of the new jets.), but the question is how good do they need to get?
I believe “easy to get to” is overrated.
Vail is easy to get to. Is that our dream?
I occasionally fly out of the Eagle County/Vail airport and I can imagine it is just about what our ambitious planners have in mind for our new terminal: large, echoing spaces that serve no real purpose except to make it clear that we have … large, echoing spaces.
I have found nothing particularly efficient or convenient or attractive about the Vail Airport – except, to be sure, the free parking. (And do you really think the price of parking at the Aspen Airport will go down after they spend a few million on a new terminal?)
Of course, Vail also handles much larger planes, with direct flights to many more cities.
Is that what we want? Two-hundred passenger 757s flying direct to Miami?
I know for some of you, the answer is Yes. Or even, Hell Yes!
Maybe because you think it’ll be good for business. Or because you think it’ll be more convenient next time you personally want to fly. Or just because bigger is, after all, always better.
No disrespect to Vail, but I don’t think that’s what we want.
And it isn’t as if the airport terminal we have now is a disaster.
I fly in and out of Aspen more often than I probably should and I never have a problem that can be blamed on the terminal.
I don’t feel rushed or crowded or confused or abused.
The lines at the check-in counters can get a little long – but that has more to do with the airlines’ reluctance to pay enough people to staff those counters.
And, as long as we’re talking about the people who work at the airport, let me take a moment to say that they are the best part of the experience. I consistently find the people at the United counter (nothing against the other guys, just that I’m a prisoner of United) friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable.
Even the men and women at the security check seem friendly and reasonable. They get the job done: Everyone is well-scrutinized, without being treated like dirt.
The people are the good part. The weather and the terrain are the difficult part. The terminal seems mostly irrelevant.
OK. I guess things might go a little more smoothly if we had a glorious, brilliantly designed new terminal – but how many glorious new projects do you recall that have been brilliantly designed?
It seems more likely that we’d wind up with a terminal designed by the same whiz kids who created the new check-out lines at City Market. Or (think back to the 1990s) the glorious, fully automated baggage handling system at Denver International Airport.
That’s the stuff that happens when those high-priced designers decide to make things better.
Look, I know this is an old fight – and we keep fighting it over and over again.
Is Aspen supposed to be glossy and nifty and super-luxe with all the sharp corners and rough spots smoothed out?
Or is it supposed to have a little more character than that?