An airport town hall hopes for a greener, smaller future for Aspen’s airside
As Pitkin County grapples over the future of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, a community group led by one of the valley’s most well-known thinkers stepped up to offer its analysis.
Aspen Fly Right is a nonprofit group whose mission is to offer scientific, actionable information relating to the airport. The group hosted an airport “Town Hall” in the Dunaway Community Room at the Pitkin County Library Monday evening, which drew a crowd of about 60 people.
The meeting consisted of a presentation of findings from Aspen Fly Right President Amory Lovins, Old Snowmass resident since 1982, co-founder and now chairman emeritus of the Rocky Mountain Institute, also current adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Lovins’ presentation was followed by an audience Q&A with him and Aspen Airport Advisory Board Chair Jacque Francis. Video of the discussion is available at grassrootstv.org.
Aspen Fly Right says they are committed to studying the airside, or plane-accessible, portion of the airport and support the community and county’s desire to renovate the landside, or passenger/car-accessible portions of the airport like the terminal and parking lot.
What concerns Lovins and the group is the potential to allow larger planes to land at the airport and challenges in pilot training/safety, the impending future of electric aircraft and sustainable aviation fuel, and noise and air pollution.
Last month, volunteers collected data near the airport. Preliminary findings suggested that carcinogenic particles are detectable in the air hundreds of meters away from the runway.
“As these particles leave the engine, fly way over hundreds of meters, they grow, they react and they often create toxic or carcinogenic coatings, organic or metallic, that are highly reactive and inflammatory in the body,” Lovins said of the smallest particles.
Lovins is still working on triangulating the data with takeoff times at the airport to better understand what came from car exhaust versus jet exhaust.
The organization secured $3,200 from private donors to set up sensors to measure air pollution and wind in the areas surrounding the airport runway.
This data directly informs Aspen Fly Right’s position to delay construction on the airside in favor of waiting for new technology. In the next few decades, major advancements in electric planes and sustainable aviation fuel — which is already offered at the Aspen Airport, but not the norm for most planes — are expected. And, Lovins said, the existing fleet can last for another 20-30 years.
If the airport holds out on renovation until the airside can be equipped to suit the needs of greener, more climate-friendly aircraft, they should wait, he said.
“I think we can crush our environmental goals without rebuilding the airside if we’re patient and let the innovators do their work, save the airside costs and use it to fix the landside,” Lovins said. “I see no advantage, but great risk, in designing a new airside now.”
According to the presentation, about 83% of airport traffic comes from general aviation, or non-commercial planes, which is managed by the fixed base operation. The county will select a new FBO contractor this year. He implored the county to select an operator that will retain some autonomy for the county to set fuel prices and other controls.
The county is projected to spend over $500 million on the airport renovation across land and airside.
County Commissioners Greg Poschman and Patti Clapper attended the meeting. Clapper spoke up to clarify that submitting an airport plan to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval — and funding — is a very detailed process that must include complete plans for every inch of the airport, both landside and airside.
The plan could be completed in phases, but moving ahead with landside renovations could not be done without having a good-faith effort to plan the airside renovations. Later amendments or changes to the plan could go through with approval, she added.
Poschman took pages of notes during the presentation and community discussion. He said he was heartened to see such a strong community turnout, though he noted — with a hint of exasperation — that much of what Lovins and attendees discussed already is or has been considered by the county.
“(Lovins) is an 800-pound gorilla in this field. And the Airport Advisory Board along with the 100+ people on the Airport Vision Committee have had a huge influence already,” Poschman said of input on the airport received by the commissioners. “We need more scrutiny and more input.”
Poschman recused himself from the FBO decision as his wife works for one of the contractors that submitted a bid.
A decision on who will win the FBO contract was expected in April, though it seems that decision may be delayed.
Occupancy down from last year; airport transitioning to spring schedule
As the winter season heads towards the end, occupancy in Aspen and Snowmass combined is still slightly down from where it was last year.