Aspen chamber endorses airport runway extension
ASPEN – The proposed runway extension at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport won endorsement from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors Tuesday, after an airport official debunked assertions that the project might make the airport less safe or lead to bigger jets flying into Aspen.
The safety questions arose during public comments about the project made last week to Pitkin County commissioners, who are scheduled to take up the project on July 14. A handful of pilots voiced concerns.
“The safety dust-up blows me away,” Director of Aviation Jim Elwood told the ACRA board.
“We would never, ever do anything that would modify or reduce safety,” he said.
The Federal Airport Administration, Elwood noted, thoroughly assessed safety as part of its decision to allow cameras to assist the airport tower in “seeing” the longer runway.
After last week’s criticisms, however, the ACRA polled its 589 members about the project, said Debbie Braun, chamber president. Of 134 who responded, 81 percent said they support the project.
“That’s a big number for us,” she said. “I think you have support from the local business community.”
Members of the ACRA board who were present approved a resolution supporting the project by a unanimous vote and agreed to send a “fact sheet” on the project to the chamber’s membership.
Elwood urged the board to do what it can to dispel misinformation about the runway extension.
“What we don’t want is for people to make decisions based on falsehoods and rumors,” he said.
Ellen Anderson, the county’s emergency incident commander, questioned last week whether the safety ramifications associated with a longer runway, if there are any, had been thoroughly assessed. Several pilots suggested lengthening the runway would either give pilots a false sense of security or lead them to drop even lower as they approach the airport.
The added length on the southeast end of the runway, toward town, would not allow pilots to alter their approach, countered Elwood.
Only 2 percent of the flights coming into the airport circle town to approach from the southeast; they would not be allowed to fly in lower or land on the extended 1,000 feet of runway, he said. That added length is intended to help jets carry more weight on takeoff.
The goal is to allow airlines to sell seats that must leave empty currently as a result of weight restrictions, Elwood explained. A longer runway would ease those restrictions, which force commercial jets to leave seats unfilled, even if they could sell them, in order to take off when temperatures warm up. Roughly 12,000 seats were purposely left empty between March 2008 and February 2009, according to an assessment of the project.
Extending the runway length from roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet will not, Elwood stressed, open the door to larger jets using the airport, though that suspicion has dogged discussions of a longer runway.
The runway’s 100,000-pound weight limit will remain in place, he said. In addition, there isn’t enough space between the taxiway and runway to allow for aircraft with more than a 95-foot wingspan under FAA regulations.
“It’s how we are able to keep the Boeing business jet out of here,” Elwood said. “We’ve been asked by some very influential people to adjust that, and it’s not happening.”
If county commissioners approve the runway extension, the project will have the final go-ahead it needs, according to Elwood. It’s possible utility work could begin in the fall, and the project could be completed by the fall of 2011. No airport closure is anticipated during the work, though there may be some operational restrictions during construction.
The estimated $15 million project would be eligible for 95 percent federal funding through the Airport Improvement Program administered by the FAA. The grants are paid by airport users, through the sale of fuel to private jets and commercial airline tickets, for example. The other 5 percent would come from airport revenues, Elwood said.
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