Aspen/Pitkin County Airport FBO decision on the horizon: A look at applicants and the selection process |

Aspen/Pitkin County Airport FBO decision on the horizon: A look at applicants and the selection process

A private aircraft prepares to touch down at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where general aviation accounts for more than three-quarters of all flights.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

With the contract set to expire later this year, Pitkin County is nearing the final stretch of its process to award a bid to a fixed base operator at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. 

The county expects to announce its first choice this week, narrowed from a list of seven to a shortlist of three providers. Those three are current FBO provider Atlantic Aviation, Signature Flight Support, and Modern Aviation.

Atlantic Aviation is headquartered in Houston and operates 106 FBOs nationwide. Signature Flight Support is headquartered in Orlando and operates more than 200 FBOs internationally. And Modern Aviation is headquartered in New York City and funded by private equity firm Tiger Infrastructure Partners. They declined to be interviewed for this article. 

Once the selection committee names its top choice, the county will enter into negotiations with that firm. The county attorney’s office and procurement office would be a part of that process, followed by review by the Board of County Commissioners and the public comment that comes with that. 

The county first signed the current FBO contract in 1993 with the FBO Aspen Base Operations. In October 2005, ABO assigned its interest in the current FBO agreement to Trajen Flight Support LP. 

Then in June 2006, Atlantic acquired Trajen and assumed the rights and responsibilities of the current FBO Agreement. The contract will expire on Sept. 30.

What does an FBO do?

The Aspen Airport is a unique location for FBO operators due to qualities like altitude, mountain landscape and climate — and a highly involved community in airport happenings. 

Perhaps most consequential to a potential FBO, however, is the approximate 80/20 breakdown of general aviation, or private planes, versus commercial flight traffic at the airport. Still, because the airport receives FAA funding, flying to Aspen’s airport is a first-come, first-served basis. Private planes do not receive priority over commercial planes. 

FBOs run fueling infrastructure, operate the general aviation terminal for their customers, and manage patio shelters and tie-downs for private aircraft.

The term itself comes from the early days of airplanes when pilots would look for fuel and maintenance stops from the sky, and providers — usually farmers — would service the planes in barns on their land, eventually evolving into permanent, “fixed” businesses. 

The name “fixed base operator” stuck long after the FBOs moved out of barns and into slick terminals, and now signify those at an airport whose primary responsibility is general aviation.

What the county’s looking for

The last time Pitkin County evaluated a firm to operate the FBO at the airport was in the early 1990s. This time, the county is looking for greater involvement in operations through the contract.

“We’re looking for more ownership of their operations. We’re wanting them to do more, not only at the airport, but within the community,” said Chris Davis, Pitkin County procurement manager and a non-voting member of the selection committee.

The request for proposals, put out in 2022, lists that the FBO will be responsible for the operation and management of 32 tie-downs, 48 bay patio shelters, rental car services and other parking, plus other services in addition to the terminal, hangar and fuel farm already operated by the FBO.

The airport is in the midst of a major renovation of both the land and air-operations side of the airport. Davis said that without an approved airport layout plan from the Federal Aviation Administration, respondents to the request for proposals, or RFP, needed to demonstrate creative and financial flexibility to accommodate changes. 

“There’s also a large financial component of their investment into the redevelopment of the east side, the new development on the west side or proposed development over there,” he said. 

But one of the most significant changes to the RFP language from that of 30 years ago is the community input and involvement. 

In 2020, an airport vision committee published the Common Ground Recommendations to guide the county on the community’s goals for the airport. The county commissioners later adopted those recommendations.

Some of the greatest areas of concern laid out in the recommendations were safety, sustainability, and community values. Language prioritizing those goals guided the RFP process, Davis said. It explicitly mentions a 30% noise reduction, straight from the recommendations. 

“The top three, especially in their interviews, really displayed their understanding of our community,” he said. “That was really that was a pretty large focus of, of all of the proposers is showing their understanding of our vision and process of the Common Ground Recommendations of the Airport Advisory Board.”

The selection process

After a series of meetings and site visits, respondents submitted their applications through the solicitation platform by the Feb. 16 deadline. The selection committee, led by the county procurement office, announced the shortlist March 22.

The selection committee:

  • Dan Bartholomew, Aspen Pitkin County Airport Director
  • Rich Englehart, Pitkin County Deputy County Manager
  • Gerald Fielding, Pitkin County Engineering and Construction Director
  • Diane Jackson, Aspen Pitkin County Airport Deputy Director
  • Brad Jacobson, Jacobsen Daniels, Airport Layout Plan Consultant
  • Clint Kinney, Ex-Officio Airport Advisory Board Member
  • Evan Marks, Pitkin County Financial Advisory Board Member
  • Liz Woods, Pitkin County Deputy Finance Director

Non-voting members:

  • Chris Davis, Pitkin County Procurement Manager
  • John Ely, Pitkin County Attorney

The committee scored each bidder on a variety of topics, including environmental goals, ability to finance and construct the new FBO facilities, and past industry performance. 

The scoresheet used by the selection committee to rank the FBO bidders. (Pitkin County)
Courtesy photo

Then on April 3, the committee interviewed the top three firms. Each interview consisted of a 20-minute presentation from the bidder, plus another hour or so of open dialogue, not exceeding one hour and 30 minutes as a whole.

The committee now has the task of reviewing and finalizing their scores, which will be aggregated and weighed by RFP criteria. They will announce the top choice, and the county will enter lease/contract negotiations. 

The new contract will be for a 30-year term. Any losing firm may request a “debrief” conversation with Davis and the county procurement office. 

FBO priorities

The first priority listed in the Common Ground Recommendations is “Maximize the Safety of Our Airport.”

The Airport Advisory Board noted that the airport experienced over 40 accidents — all involving private, non-airline aircraft — that caused substantial damage or the complete loss of the aircraft in the vicinity of the Aspen airport in the past four decades. 

As recently as April 2, a private jet slid off the runway and got stuck in the mud and snow, resulting in airport closure for the rest of the day, though no injuries or serious damage were reported. 

Both Atlantic and Signature espoused the importance of pilot training and safety, though the FAA is responsible for pilot accreditation. 

“We have some very serious safety standards. But also we are coming up with ways that we feel are going to help train pilots,” said Signature’s senior vice president of airport relations, Jim Hopkins.

Whether they win the bid or not, Hopkins said, Signature will host seminars at the Eagle County Regional Airport in April and May, with registration already exceeding 247 participants before offering incentives. 

At Atlantic, which has been operating the FBO for the past 16 years, pilot safety looks like keeping training material available to pilots who come through the general aviation terminal and supporting the local flight school to train future aviation workers.

“We’ve taken on the task as the FBO to educate the pilot base, not only just the local tenants who are already well versed in mountain flying, but to everyone else,” said Jonathan Jones, general manager of the Aspen FBO for Atlantic. 

They provide free fuel, offices and patio shelters for the flight school. Plus, Atlantic recently awarded $100,000 in scholarships to local high school students interested in pursuing aviation-related careers. 

Again, Modern Aviation declined an interview.

Language in the RFP did not emphasize incentivizing pilot training outside of FAA regulations as strongly as other community goals. 

For sustainability, both Atlantic and Signature touted accomplishments in carbon neutrality, electrification of equipment, and sustainable aviation fuel as markers of their commitment to the environment. 

One of the most common criticisms lobbed against Atlantic is their use of auxiliary power units — loud, gas-fueled machines that power electricity on planes and help start the main engine. 

Critics say that APUs will get turned on hours before a general aviation customer arrives to leave on their plane, pumping fumes and noise into the atmosphere unnecessarily. 

Jones said that Atlantic requests that APUs only run 15 minutes before a plane arrives or after it lands, part of their “Park Quiet” program. 

And the FBO plans to expand its fleet of electric ground power units from five to 10, which are much quieter than APUs.

“Our biggest complaint is that it’s not on. And the reason is because they can’t hear it,” Jones said of the electric ground power units. 

And while Atlantic currently maintains about 44 pieces of electric equipment right now, they said that they laid out plans for greater electrification in their application.

“Our response to the RFP details exactly how we will maintain net neutrality, including photovoltaic solar installations for charging infrastructure, and there’s even the potential for other other sources of electricity,” said Brian Corbett, chief commercial and sustainability officer for Atlantic. “And we’re closely aligned with Holy Cross Electric and their sustainable electricity sourcing that we can purchase here, as well.”

Atlantic also uses SAF, which is about 30:70 sustainable aviation fuel to traditional jet fuel, and trucks it in from California using vehicles running on biofuel, Corbett said. They hope to increase the SAF to jet fuel ratio as high as 50:50, the maximum allowed by the FAA.

Hopkins noted that Signature owns an SAF supply company, which he said allows them to control access and delivery. 

And Hopkins touted Signature’s recent carbon-neutral label that they are looking to expand beyond their own operations and to their customers, specifically through “book and claim.”

“Basically, you buy a regular gallon of gas or jet fuel. But what you do is you buy it, and you pay the (SAF) premium and you get credit — it’s like buying carbon credits,” he said. The system allows environmentally-conscious customers to foot the bill, he explained, and provide them a way to chip away at their carbon footprint. 

Balancing the desires of usually wealthy clientele with a community’s demands, especially sustainability-oriented demands, is a tricky business. 

“People who own airplanes buy airplanes because they’re time machines. And they like their time machines, because they do two things. They’re ready when they are. And they move fast, and they get you there very quickly,” Hopkins said. “There are lots of things that you have to think about when you’re an aircraft owner. You have to think about the environment, and sustainability. And it’s great that aircraft owners are starting to really think about that. The other thing that you really have to think about is how your aircraft’s operation is affecting others.”

Both firms say their operations achieved carbon-neutrality through electrification, SAF and the purchasing of carbon offsets. 

Documents related to the applicants and the selection committee, plus financial stakes, will not be available at least until after a contract is negotiated, according to Davis, which he said is standard procedure for a formal procurement process to avoid public influence on the committee.

“Rather than wait for CORA requests and respond to that, I think we’re going to publish all of it as public record and links to the airport’s website, as we did the RFP documents,” he said.

The FAA and the county will hold a special meeting regarding the airport renovations on Tuesday at 9 a.m. The public is welcome to attend in-person or virtually.