Aspen/Pitkin County Airport forecast shows slight aviation growth; county must choose whether to accept it
Work toward submitting a full-fledged Airport Layout Plan to the Federal Aviation Administration comes incrementally. The latest piece of the plan considered by the Airport Advisory Board attempts to predict future demand levels at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.
Last week, the board got a look at a draft of the Aviation Demand Forecast, which — among other topics — looks at enplaned passengers, air taxi operations, local and itinerant general aviation, peak period demand, and aircraft fleet historically and in the future.
In general, the forecast predicts demand trending slightly upward in the scope of the study, 2022-42.
The aviation consultant firm Jacobsen Daniels was hired for the Airport Layout Plan process to translate the Common Ground Recommendations to language understandable to the FAA. They presented to the advisory board Thursday because pieces of the recommendations — that annual growth be limited to 0.8% and aircraft at the airport remain relatively small and quiet — do not seem likely in forecast data.
After more than an hour of Jacobsen Daniels representatives presenting the report, board members pointed out that the choice is binary with little to no room for tweaking the forecast.
“The conversation isn’t: How are we going to tweak this? The conversation is are we going to accept it or not,” said Auden Schendler, a board member and senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. “And if we don’t, then the conversation we’re having is: Do we want to stop getting discretionary funding from the FAA and choose another path entire?”
Most board members agreed, and they voted to put off further discussion to the next meeting on May 18.
One of the biggest contention points between the FAA and the airport is the future of the 95-foot wingspan limit on aircraft. The airport currently holds an FAA modification of standard allowing the exclusion of planes with larger wingspans due to an insufficiently wide separation between the runway and taxiway.
But the FAA recently told the PItkin County commissioners and the Airport Advisory Board that if it wants future discretionary funding — which could amount to hundreds of millions — the airport will need to widen the separation to allow aircraft with up to a 118-foot wingspan. That is the norm for Aspen airport’s design group (ADG III).
Some community members, including the group Aspen Fly Right, warn against investing money to permit larger planes at the airport right away. They advocate for waiting out the viability of the current fleet that flies to Aspen, mostly CRJ-700s, and making a decision based on upcoming aviation innovation. If the county runs the fixed base operation, they posit, the lost FAA funds can be recouped.
The forecast assumes that the Aspen airport constructs the separation to allow wider-wingspan aircraft, which would open access to new planes at the airport.
Those planes, likely the E175LR, A220-100 and A220-300, range in their emissions output in comparison to the current CRJ-700s that fly to Aspen. The forecast predicts the A220-300 will take the CRJ-700s place as the Critical Design Aircraft, or the aircraft with the most regular use at the airport. It has a 10 more seats than outlined in the Common Ground Recommendations.
But these planes only account for commercial flights. General aviation could see many different aircraft that fall under the 118-foot wingspan limit.
The mid-range scenario projects that enplanements will increase at an average annual growth rate of 1.3%, or 298,561 passengers in 2022 to 390,234 passengers in 2042.
On a day-to-day basis, that translates to about 5.5 more passengers per day. And compared to the Common Ground Recommendations, the mid-range scenario would result in about 40,000 more passengers across the 20-year period than a 0.8% annual growth rate.
Still, the data on enplanements only accounts for a sliver of what comes through ASE, as only commercial passengers count. With approximately 17% of ASE operations commercial and 83% general aviation.
Air taxi operations, or aircraft with 60 seats or less, are projected at mid-range scenario to increase at an annual average rate of 2.1%.
And general aviation, which makes up a majority of traffic at Aspen/Pitckin County Airport, is projected to grow at a slower rate. The report breaks it up by itinerant and local general aviation, which average at 0.7% and 0.8% rates of annual growth, respectively.
Calculated together, air taxi and general aviation operations are projected to grow, at a mid-range scenario, at 1.3%.
The forecast also takes into account based aircraft at Aspen. Currently, the airport has a fleet of 96-based aircraft, with the parking options generally at full capacity with a waitlist. The forecast projects 126-based aircraft by 2042.
In all, the aviation demand forecast tells a story of slow but steady demand coming to Aspen’s airport over the next 20 years. They predict general aviation demand to remain relatively flat — Aspen’s overwhelming incoming and outgoing traffic — but an increase in air taxi operations.
Once the Airport Advisory Board determines whether to advance the forecast to the Board of County Commissioners, the commissioners will work on a resolution to submit the aviation demand forecast to the FAA for final approval.
The airport and the advisory board will host a community open house to answer public questions relating to the land- and air-side renovations and the FBO process on May 11.