Aspen runway extension will have service impacts

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Jeanne McGovern The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Aspen-Pitkin County Airport officials are hoping extension of the runway occurs this year with minimal disruption, but there will be a 45-day period in the fall when navigational equipment will be off-line and six days when SkyWest won’t be able to fly in and out of Aspen because the runway will be too short.

SkyWest and airport officials recently determined what the runway construction will mean for the airline’s service, according to Jim Elwood, aviation director.

The extension of the runway will begin with utility relocation starting April 4, but actual runway construction work awaits anticipated federal funding. The most significant service impacts associated with construction won’t occur during the busy summer season, Elwood said Tuesday.

“The airport will be at almost full capacity throughout the work,” he said.

No shutdown of the airport is anticipated, but starting Sept. 7, the existing 7,000-foot runway will be reduced to 6,500 feet to allow construction work on the south end. And, for two three-day periods, one in mid-September and one in early October, the length of the runway will be reduced to 6,000 feet. That length will not allow the United Express jet service provided by SkyWest, according to Elwood. United is the local airport’s dominant commercial carrier.

General aviation and Frontier service on its Q400 turboprop would not be affected by the shortened runway, he said.

The shortening of the runway is necessary to provide a construction safety zone on the south end, where 1,000 feet is to be added to the existing runway. Earth work and paving will take place.

While the six days when SkyWest won’t be able to fly can be determined in advance, the impact of relocating a localizer at the south end of the runway is more difficult to predict. The localizer, which guides airplanes as they approach to land, will be shut down for 45 days, starting Sept. 7, according to Scott Cary, project manager for Denver-based Jviation Inc., an airport consulting firm that is working with the county.

The Federal Aviation Administration will handle the work with the localizer equipment.

The airport, and travelers trying to get in and out of Aspen, endured a little more than a month of localizer difficulties last fall when the FAA replaced a localizer located atop Aspen Mountain. That navigational equipment guides pilots as they circle around in the event of a missed approach into the airport. It establishes a line for pilots to follow to steer clear of the mountain as they circle.

During its replacement, and subsequent shutdowns until an FAA crew got the equipment working dependably, SkyWest was forced to cancel or divert a number of flights, whenever a visual approach into the airport wasn’t possible.

That will be the case again this fall, Cary said, but airport officials are hoping for clear autumn weather that allows SkyWest to operate more often than not. Ideally, the scheduled shutdown will occur after the summer season’s afternoon thunderstorms have ceased but before the snows of October, he said.

“We’re trying to pick the best possible time to do it,” Cary said.

The $13 million runway extension is expected to ease weight restrictions that force airlines to limit the number of passengers an aircraft can carry. Some 12,000 airline seats a year are left unsold because of the restrictions, according to Elwood. The additional runway length won’t, however, accommodate larger aircraft than those that serve the airport currently, he added.

The runway project will be funded primarily by the FAA with money from taxes it collects on fuel, airfare and freight. The airport will fund the remaining 5 percent of the construction cost out of its revenues, which come from fees collected in operation of the airport. The airport does not receive taxpayer support, Elwood noted.