Aspen airport expansion will allow for 737-sized planes, but will they come? | AspenTimes.com

Aspen airport expansion will allow for 737-sized planes, but will they come?

Once Aspen has a new airport terminal and runway — perhaps by 2023 — the facility will not only be able to receive airplanes the size of 737s, it will be obligated to do so.

That's because Pitkin County cannot afford to build the project without federal grant money and the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow the airport to forbid certain types of planes provided the facility is large enough to receive them, said John Kinney, Aspen airport director.

"We won't have the ability to say no to 737s," he said Friday. "You cannot discriminate against class or category of aircraft."

Airport and Pitkin County officials are moving forward with plans to relocate and widen Aspen's runway and build a new 60,000- to 80,000-square-foot terminal now that FAA officials have approved an environmental assessment of the project. That approval came late last month, though a 45-day public comment period remains open.

Cost estimates for those plans, however, have swelled significantly, Kinney said. Previous reports pegged the total cost of the new runway and terminal at just under $100 million. The newest estimates put the total at between $350 million and $400 million, he said.

"It's been five years since those numbers (were calculated)," he said.

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Kinney is well-aware of the upper Roaring Fork Valley's longtime aversion to 737-size airplanes — regional jets are the largest planes currently allowed to land at the airport — and said there are several variables that might keep them out.

First, it is not yet clear whether commercial 737s possess the performance ability to fly in and out of Aspen, Kinney said. Aspen airport officials have asked the carriers that currently serve the airport — United, American and Delta — if that is possible, but have not yet received an answer, he said.

Kinney emphasized that the airlines need to be reminded about the public's feelings on Boeing 737s and their equivalents made by other companies such as Airbus. That way market forces can do what airport officials cannot and keep larger planes out, he said.

While the airlines already may have gotten the message — Kinney said he was recently on a conference call where an American Airlines representative said 737s were "off limits" for Aspen — it's valuable for them to continue to hear those feelings, he said.

"I think it's very important that airlines hear from the community," Kinney said. "(Residents) need to continue to voice their opinions about what kind of aircraft they want."

WATER-BED EFFECT

Corporate 737s are more likely to fly into Aspen because they carry fewer people and less cargo so they are lighter and have better performance, Kinney said. But there are other factors — including making it clear that the community would prefer smaller jets — that likely will come into play when it comes to accommodating larger corporate jets.

One of the main factors is parking, he said.

Aspen's runway is slated to be moved 80 feet to the west and widened from 100 feet to 150 feet to accommodate a new crop of regional jets that have larger wingspans. The FAA has mandated those changes, Kinney said, which also will create a safer environment for smaller planes, too.

In addition, Aspen's new terminal will be larger than the current 47,000-square-foot facility.

Both of those things will take up more space in an airport that is geographically hemmed in by Highway 82 on two sides, Buttermilk Ski Mountain on another and Owl Creek Road and sloping hills on the fourth, he said.

Kinney likened the process to pushing on a water-bed. The area to be expanded pushes into other parts of the facility and affects those spaces, he said. And the airport still must have a de-icing area, a long-term parking lot, an employee parking lot, a rental car lot and, yes, airplane parking areas.

So the lack of adequate parking for 737 business jets could convince corporate visitors to fly their smaller Gulfstream jets into Aspen instead of the big ones, he said. That lack of parking space could hinder the total number of corporate jets in and out of Aspen, Kinney said.

"We could see fewer corporate jets because the parking capacity will shrink," he said.

The new, larger regional jets — which are said to be quieter and more fuel efficient — also will take up more space, Kinney said.

In fact, Aspen's new terminal is likely to have fewer gates than the current facility, he said. Officials are thinking there will be a total of five gates as opposed to the current eight, Kinney said. That likely will mean more passengers on fewer flights, he said.

UPPING THE COSTS

The next step in the project's process is to apply for a $6 million FAA grant that already has been designated for Aspen, Kinney said. That will get the runway portion of the project going, which will be done in phases over an approximately two-year period, he said.

Paving the new runway eventually will require the airport to close for possibly as many as 90 days, probably in 2021 or 2022, Kinney said. Community dialog will be important to figure out the least disruptive time to do that, he said.

The new runway will cost between $150 million and $175 million, 10 percent of which will be paid by Pitkin County, Kinney said. The rest will come in the form of federal grants. That portion of the project is close to being finalized, he said.

"It's not a done deal but we're in the ninth inning," Kinney said.

The terminal could cost as much as $225 million, he said. Pitkin County will be on the hook for between 50 percent and 60 percent of that cost, Kinney said. The community will have chances in 2019 and 2020 to make their feelings known about the new facility, which could start being built in 2022 or 2023, he said.

Since the project began, Pitkin County commissioners have been willing to allow extra time for community input, Kinney said. For example, the FAA's environmental assessment process generally takes between 10 and 18 months. For Aspen's airport, it took about three years because of the public process, he said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com