Aspen Times Weekly: ‘Mr. Potato Head’ airport heading for big changes
Back around Christmas in 2014, three couples and their young children stranded at the Aspen airport faced an unpleasant situation.
It was bitterly cold outside, all the hotel rooms in town were booked and airport employees were asking them to leave the terminal. The airport had a long-standing policy of not allowing anyone to spend the night in the terminal building, airport director John Kinney said.
Kinney, who had recently arrived on the job from a previous post at Los Angeles International Airport, came to work the next morning, heard what happened and immediately changed the policy.
“I met with our staff and said we will open for passengers who are stranded,” Kinney said in a recent interview. “I found it unusual that we couldn’t accommodate these passengers.”
So where did families stay that cold Rocky Mountain night?
“These people rented cars,” Kinney said. “That was where they spent the night. One (of the children with them) was less than 9 months old.”
The airport has since bought cots, blankets and pillows as part of the new stranded-passenger policy as well as designating a sleeping area near bathrooms where lights can be turned down, he said. And while the policy has only come into play once since then, it was more evidence, to Kinney, of the antiquated policies and infrastructure that plague Aspen’s airport.
“And it’s not only the passenger experience,” he said. “It’s local employees, too. The injury rate is higher than industry norms.”
So with an eye toward the future, Pitkin County officials have already begun the yearslong process they hope will, possibly by 2020 or 2021, yield a sparkly, modern airport built to service Aspen and Pitkin County’s needs for decades to come.
“If I heard, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it,’ that would be one thing,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “But the majority of voices I’m hearing say we need to address the runway and the terminal.
“But we don’t need to go overboard. We don’t need to build the Taj Mahal just because we can.”
The new Aspen-Pitkin County Airport will take shape through two projects, each costing about $100 million.
One is construction of a modern, green terminal building that meets the needs of today’s passengers as well as those of airport employees and the commercial airlines that fly here. The second is tweaking the runway’s location and making it wider and longer to be able to accommodate the fleet of larger regional jets said to be on the way.
“I think we do need a new terminal,” Pitkin County Board Chairman George Newman said. “It’s for the safety, security and comfort or our guests and passengers as well as to accommodate the new aircraft.”
TERMINAL ‘BURSTING AT the SEAMS’
First consider the terminal.
The original 17,500-square-foot building opened in 1976 and was “redeveloped” in 1986-87, according to the airport’s website. It is currently about 47,000 square feet, Kinney said, and its problems are myriad.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards likened the facility to “Mr. Potato Head.”
“It’s just a mishmash of elevations and components,” she said. “You stack something on here and hope it looks better.
“I see it as bursting at the seams.”
For starters, Kinney said, the ticket counter and the baggage processing areas are too small, the Transportation Safety Administration area is too constrained and, even with a recent re-jiggering, the passenger boarding area is easily overcrowded. There are no drinking fountains, few bathrooms, limited food options, a lack of seating and a dearth of power outlets essential to charge travelers’ electronic devices, Kinney said. Finally, the back-of-the-house facilities for airport and airline employees are also too small, baggage conveyer belts are too low — which leads to a higher than usual number of workers’ compensation claims — and the baggage-handling area is woefully undersized, he said.
“During peak weeks, 600 bags are missing flights on the return out,” Kinney said. “They can’t examine and load them all (in time).”
The Aspen Chamber Resort Association runs a guest-services desk at the airport and is well-aware of the facility’s issues, said Debbie Braun, the organization’s president and CEO.
“It really isn’t accommodating today’s passengers,” she said. “I think our guests deserve a better space.”
Braun said the county and airport staff have done “an amazing job” over the past two decades making travel through the airport the best experience possible. But while the experience isn’t consistently subpar, weather-related problems and popular weekends occur often enough to cloud many travelers’ Aspen vacation, she said.
“There always seems to be, ‘Oh this isn’t the best experience,’” Braun said. “It’s not leaving a great taste in a visitor’s mouth.”
Or, as Richards put it, the airport on a busy weekend “is like 15 pounds in a 10-pound bag.”
Kim Allen, an Aspen-based ski vacation specialist with Ski.com who has booked ski trips throughout the country for the past 16 years, agreed.
“The level of service at the airport is fairly nonexistent,” she said. “It’s pretty basic. There aren’t a lot of amenities.
“There’s not really any welcome-to-Aspen kind of feel.”
Separate from the facility itself are Aspen’s geographical and weather challenges, Kinney said. The terrain, altitude, lack of an instrument-only landing system, which is forbidden because of the terrain, and frequent lack of visibility because of weather, especially in winter, lead to delays, he said. And that means travelers might have to wait for hours or possibly a day or two in the terminal.
“It’s a difficult, challenging experience to get into Aspen,” Kinney said.
The dichotomy between spending $30,000 on an opulent Aspen vacation and then experiencing a flight delay or cancellation at the Aspen airport can be striking, Allen said.
“Think about how often in winter people are stuck in this rinky-dink airport all day,” she said. “It leaves a bad taste from their visit.”
Further, the delays and time spent in the “rinky-dink” airport can be a factor in whether a visitor chooses to return to Aspen, Allen said.
“All it takes is one day of getting totally jammed up here,” she said. “If it happens two times in a row, you’re like, ‘Forget it.’”
EASING THE WAIT
While controlling the snow and weather obviously isn’t an option, a new, modern airport might cushion the inconvenience, Allen said.
“If they made it a bit more comfortable, maybe it’s not so bad a taste,” she said. “(The new airport) should speak to the world-class destination we have to offer here.”
Richards said the building has outlived its purpose.
“At some point we’re just throwing good money after bad,” she said. “And we’re not preparing for the future.”
To that end, county officials have presented the public with two design concepts for the new terminal.
The first, known as The Ridge, is a 1½-story structure with a large, open entrance area and small gate area upstairs. The second option is called The Pavillion and features a more standard two-story design, again with the entrance downstairs and the gate area upstairs.
Kinney said his best guess is that the terminal will be between 85,000 and 95,000 square feet. The most popular design with the public is The Ridge, he said.
“We need something that is energy-efficient but well-serviced and maintained for the future,” Richards said.
Clapper agreed, but said she doesn’t want to over-build a facility that glows in the dark and disturbs area residents.
“We need to be careful how much and how big it is,” she said. “Let’s reserve space for the future and build what we need now.”
RUNWAY ON the MOVE
Moving and widening the runway is the second part of the airport project.
Upcoming changes to the current fleet of regional jets that serve Aspen and many other small airports is the main reason commonly cited by airport and elected officials for the altered runway. The current jets, with a maximum wingspan of 95 feet, no longer are being built and will be phased out of commercial airline fleets in the near future, officials say.
The new crop of regional jets is slated to be quieter and more fuel-efficient, but they also will be larger, Kinney said. In order to accommodate so-called Group 3 airplanes with wingspans as wide as 118 feet, the runway will have to be moved, Kinney said.
In order to keep the present level of service, the runway would have to be moved 80 feet west of its current location to accommodate those larger wingspans. The runway’s width also would change from 100 feet to 150 feet, Kinney said.
“The question is do you want to maintain regional jets at the current class or downgrade to turbo props?” Richards said. “That would be a tremendous downgrade to service.”
Another group clamoring for a longer, wider Aspen runway are those who own or want to buy top-of-the line Gulfstream G650 jets, which are currently too large to land here, Kinney said. The airport has received more than 30 requests regarding the Gulfstream G650, he said.
Talk of larger planes with larger wingspans flying into Aspen has, historically, been met with vigorous opposition, often from the Woody Creek area, with visions of 737s and even 747s coming in and lifting off over their homes.
Former Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley, a Woody Creek resident and longtime caucus member, said better airplane technology has quelled many of those previously vocal airport opponents.
“I don’t think you’ll find a lot of opposition,” he said. “Most planes have much quieter engines now. That has taken a lot of the bite out of this issue.”
Twenty years ago, the noise was so bad in Woody Creek, which is in the flight path, it made dishes rattle when planes flew over, Owsley said.
“You had to stop conversations if you were outside,” he said. “It was awful. The noise impacts were terrible.”
Phil Holstein, a longtime Woody Creek Caucus member in charge of airport issues, said the group is OK with altering the runway for larger regional jets and building a bigger terminal, though 80,000 square feet “is pushing it.”
But the caucus is adamant about not wanting 737s and 747s to land at the airport, he said.
“Those are loud airplanes,” Holstein said.
To that end, caucus members are proposing a weight limit of 150,000 pounds on any plane landing in Aspen, he said. That would allow the next generation of regional jets and Gulfstreams to land, but not 737s and 747s, Holstein said.
The caucus also wants to keep the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in effect, he said. County Manager Jon Peacock said the curfew will remain.
As for 737s, Commissioner Newman said he isn’t worried about them coming in as the result of a larger runway because of safety concerns related to flying those jets in to Aspen. As for 747s, Clapper said she’s checked with people in the airline industry and heard that corporate versions of that plane might be able to land in Aspen with a larger runway, but commercial 747s loaded with passengers could not land here because of similar safety concerns associated with 737s.
Richards said she’s certain some county residents will be concerned about airport growth and its impacts. But, at the same time, it’s important to look at the advantages of the project, she said.
“The new jets will be quieter and more fuel-efficient,” Richards said. “It’s what we want.”
Conversely, downgrading to turbo-prop planes only, which would likely end direct service between Aspen and cities such as Dallas and Los Angeles, would probably not be a popular alternative for travelers, said everyone interviewed for this story.
A turbo-prop plane was around the Aspen area for the Winter X Games in January and it was “extremely noisy,” Clapper said.
“It brought back memories of Rocky Mountain Airways, or Rocky Mountain ‘Scareways,’ as some used to call it,” she said. “They were rattling and shaking and noisy. They’re supposed to be safer, but when you’re in one, it doesn’t feel that way.”
The bottom line is that turbo props could lead to more noise impacts, Clapper said.
While the two airport projects are expensive, they are not expected to be built with much, if any, taxpayer money, Peacock said.
Ninety percent of the approximately $100 million needed to relocate the runway is expected to come from the Federal Aviation Administration, he said. The remaining 10 percent would come from the Airport Enterprise Fund, which collects revenue from airport leases, fuel fees, parking fees and other sources, Peacock said.
Money to build the terminal — expected to be in the $96 million range — will come mainly from that Airport Enterprise Fund, he said. Officials are hoping to secure FAA grants for, perhaps, 20 percent of the project, but that remains to be seen, Peacock said.
“Right now we are not planning on any tax dollars going into this,” he said.
A national consulting firm is nearing the end of an environmental assessment of the new runway and terminal. The firm looked at the impacts of a 140,000-square-foot version of both terminal designs under consideration, Peacock said.
While the report is not yet finished, the only significant finding as of last month is that 1.5 acres of wetlands needs to be relocated, Kinney has said.
“Now we really need to take a look at the type of experience we want people to have when they come here,” Kinney said. “These are people from all over the globe. And, right now, there’s a large disconnect.”