Aspen airport discussion enters final approach by Pitkin County commissioners

Nearly all seven nonstop flights from Aspen/PItkin County Airport will continue through September, and the American Austin flight has been extended to October, according to Bill Tomcic, the managing partner of Airplanners.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

After countless hours over the past few months spent discussing the minute details of Aspen’s future airport, Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday finally focused on the two main questions at the heart of the project.

And while no decisions were made during the four-hour discussion, a majority of board members indicated they want to make a final decision and move the project forward this fall.

“The community is looking for our leadership to make a decision on this and not postpone it,” Commissioner George Newman said.

Final decisions could be made after another four-hour meeting scheduled from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. Oct. 16.

Commissioners are in the process of sifting through the 15 or so recommendations on the future of the airport provided by a committee of county residents in March. The pandemic has significantly set back the board’s timeline in addressing the long-pondered airport redevelopment.

After taking public comment on the recommendations earlier this summer, the board has spent many hours talking about and hammering out consensus on various aspects of the project this fall.

On Wednesday, they arrived at the two central questions before them: move the runway or leave it where it is, and widen it enough to allow larger aircraft, including possibly 737s, to land here, or not.

“We need a vision first,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. “We need to know where we want to go.”

The runway question took up most of Wednesday’s meeting because it is the bedrock decision on which the rest of the project will rest. Project timelines, cost, number of airport closures due to construction, phasing schedule, what kind of aircraft will fly into the facility in the future and nearly all other major decisions about the redeveloped airport start there.

And while it might sound simple — move the runway or don’t move the runway — it’s far from it.

The runway needs to be moved in the first place to satisfy Federal Aviation Administration safety concerns and increase the separation between the centerline of the runway and the centerline of the taxiway to 400 feet.

Choosing to move the runway 80 feet to the west would be the fastest way for the board to get the project moving. The proposal has already been studied and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration after a three-year environmental assessment process that ended in July 2018. That process also studied building a terminal as large as 140,000 square feet and found no issues.

The environmental assessment gave the county three years to act on the approval, of which about a year remains to begin to take “substantial action” on it, which includes design, Peacock said.

The Vision Committee, however, did not recommend moving the runway.

Members didn’t like shifting the runway closer to Shale Bluffs — though the FAA didn’t seem to have a problem — and liked the fact that it seemed greener and to involve less concrete not to rebuild the runway. They also did not like the fact that relocating the runway would require the airport to be closed two times during the busy July-through-October tourist season.

“That was a major consideration,” Peacock said. “It would probably look a lot like this summer — with a 90% decrease in flights.”

Instead, the Vision Committee recommended leaving the runway where it is and pushing the taxiway 20 feet closer to the terminal and Highway 82 to create the separation required by the FAA. That would cause a whole host of changes to the project as it would squeeze the infrastructure on that side of the runway.

Those changes would include relocating the tower, moving de-icing pads, decreasing aircraft parking on the downvalley side of the airport and forcing the terminal to be developed a bit further upvalley. It would also likely trigger development of aircraft parking on the Owl Creek Road side of the runway, which commissioners supported Wednesday providing they choose that option.

Finally, other environmentally friendly goals included in the Vision Committee’s recommendations — like the addition of a solar farm, electrification of the airfield to cut down on emissions from idling planes and geothermal elements — also were not included in the 2018 environmental assessment. Some of the green elements might be allowed under the existing environmental assessment, however, Peacock said.

“There are a lot of differences based on the community input and goals built into the recommendations,” he said.

Some or all of those things would have to be reconsidered by the FAA in a new environmental assessment process that would take time if commissioners choose that option. Also, Pitkin County would be on the hook for the cost of the EA process this time because the FAA paid the approximately $2.8 million pricetag last time, Peacock said.

In the end, moving the runway would save time and money, the county found. In addition, it would require 10% to 15% less concrete and asphalt and likely not trigger further development on the Owl Creek Road side of the runway than leaving the runway where it is, said G.R. Fielding, Pitkin County engineer.

That already-approved project would cost $368 million over a 10-year phasing schedule, including $239 million for the airfield improvements and $129 million for the terminal and other improvements. The project recommended by the Vision Committee was estimated to cost $424 million, including $297 million for the airfield and $127 million for the terminal, said Rich Englehart, assistant county manager.

The FAA is expected to pay up to 90% of the airfield improvements, with another 5% coming from the Colorado Department of Transportation, Peacock said. The terminal will be built using mostly local funds. If the runway remains where it is, that means Pitkin County is on the hook for about $126 million, Englehart said. He did not supply a local dollar amount for the EA-approved plan.

Using dollars adjusted for inflation over 10 years, the version of the project that envisions leaving the runway where it is would cost more than $521 million, with the local portion rising to $157 million, Englehart said. He did not furnish similar inflationary estimates for the EA-approved project.

“Construction inflation tends to run in double digits here,” Peacock said.

The second question commissioners wrestled with Wednesday had to do with the size of planes that will be able to fly into Aspen in the future.

Currently, planes with wingspans larger than 95 feet are not allowed to land in Aspen under an exception granted by the FAA. However, Peacock said the FAA won’t fund an airport project in Aspen that doesn’t meet standards for so-called Class 3 aircraft, which include planes with wingspans up to 118 feet.

In order to accommodate such aircraft, the runway would have to be widened by 50 feet to 150 feet, Englehart said.

The Vision Committee recommended reconfiguring the airfield to allow Class 3 aircraft “AS LONG AS” airlines agree to certain conditions. The capital letters were included in the committee’s original recommendation.

The conditions included agreeing that greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution from those future, larger aircraft would be “significantly lower than the CRJ-700,” the only regional jet left in airline fleets that currently flies into Aspen. The committee also wanted airlines to agree to fly in no more than 120 passengers per airplane and that the planes landing here would weigh less than 140,000 pounds.

Peacock said the county will have to work with its attorneys to try and figure if such a legal agreement with airlines will fly. The FAA might go for it and it might not, he said.

Peacock also reminded commissioners that the FAA has a non-discrimination clause, meaning that if the airport can accommodate Class 3 aircraft, it must do so.

Newman said he didn’t like the “as long as” portion of the recommendation. He said it needed to be reworded to reflect less stringent language indicating the county will do all it can to achieve those goals but that negotiations might mean compromise over the years.

In the end, the issue of what kind of aircraft fly into Aspen might wait until the COVID-scrambled airline industry recovers and can refocus.

“Airline service is so up in the air right now,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said.

If, for example, commissioners decided to leave the runway where it is, all the buildings around it would move first before it becomes relevant. That would give the county about a decade to see what happens with future regional jet aircraft and how they fit into Class 3 guidelines, Peacock said.