Aspen airport tenets approved, public hearing set
Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday tweaked, finalized and approved the basic ideas that will define — at least for the time being — the future of Aspen’s airport.
The public will have a chance to comment on the board’s choices — which were based on 15 recommendations made by several community-based committees that studied the airport over 18 months — at a public meeting Tuesday. Those who need to comment in person can register to attend the meeting at the Hotel Jerome Ballroom from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., while others can attend virtually by Zoom.
Unsurprisingly, Wednesday’s discussions got hung up on the recommendation from the Vision Committee that said the county should reconfigure the airfield to accommodate planes with wingspans beyond the current maximum of 95-feet “as long as” airlines agree not to fly airplanes in Aspen that offend community sensibilities, like 737s.
The regional jet that currently services the Aspen airport — known as the CRJ-700 — is no longer manufactured and likely to be phased out in about 10 years, officials have said. And though Delta tested a similar jet, the Embraer 175, on Wednesday, it is heavier and not as fuel efficient as the CRJ and its future role here is undetermined, Peacock said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most in the airline industry felt that the newer generation of jets to serve Aspen would likely have larger wingspans, though they also are likely to be more fuel efficient and quieter. With the scrambling of the airline industry because of the pandemic, that picture has become more blurry.
County staff suggested changing the sentence about redesigning the airfield to read that it will be configured for so-called Airplane Design Group 3 planes with wingspans as wide as 118-feet “once” the county understands what type of aircraft are likely to service the new airport, and the impact on community goals and the ability to negotiate with airlines to meet those goals.
If the airlines voluntarily agree to such a deal, it could work, Peacock said. However, the Aspen-Pitkin County airport cannot dictate what kind of airplanes can fly into the airport because that violates FAA rules, he said.
Commissioners Greg Poschman and Kelly McNicholas Kury said they did not like committing to the ADG 3 aircraft.
McNichols Kury said she didn’t want to accept something that didn’t meet with the community goals outlined by the Vision Committee. Poschman, who has been pushing to pause the airport project in recent weeks, said he thinks that committing to cleaner, quieter planes in the future will mean dirtier, noisier planes in the near future.
Commissioners Patti Clapper and George Newman, however, said the project needed to keep moving forward. Newman pointed out that a new runway isn’t likely to be constructed for 10, possibly 12, years and that moving forward with the language suggested by the staff offered flexibility depending on what happens in the future with the FAA.
“We’re getting paralysis analysis on this I think,” Newman said.
Clapper said she wanted to get moving on building a new terminal and didn’t want to spend any more money putting a “Band-aid” on the current terminal. The only way to begin work on a new terminal is to make decisions about the airfield, she said.
The recommendation stood and will be part of the resolution presented to the public Tuesday.
Other principles and building design features approved by the board over the past couple months include making the new airport as safe as possible, as sustainable and energy efficient as possible and as connected to local public transportation as possible. In addition, they want improved airline service and reliability and might install a reservation or peak pricing system for private aircraft.
The new design also will have energy efficient parking spaces for airplanes that won’t require them to run their engines while on the ground, though the design of that parking will be worked out later and could include parking on the Owl Creek Road side of the facility. Board members also decided to leave the runway where it is and move the taxiway to create the separation needed for larger airplanes.
Finally, the new terminal must reflect community values, character and culture and provide an enhanced experience for travelers and employees. It will have some kind of open-air jetways, though commissioners also talked about jetways covered in clear plastic to provide views and provide between six and eight gates.
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