Aspen runway ready for takeoff | AspenTimes.com

Aspen runway ready for takeoff

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Courtesy of Pitkin County

ASPEN – The newly extended runway at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport was put to use for the first time Wednesday morning, after its construction wrapped up on time, on budget and in a blizzard.

Paving of the additional 1,000 feet of runway space, an extended taxiway and pullout for aircraft – a $15.4 million project – was expected to finish in early November. It did so in Tuesday night’s blizzard, when electricians worked under bright lights in driving snow to hook up the last of the taxiway lights, according to Jim Elwood, aviation director at the airport.

“They were soaking wet. They finished at 2 or 3 in the morning,” he said.

Construction crews managed to finish the last of the paving work Tuesday before the snowstorm blew in. The last of the paint work on the new surfaces also was finished Tuesday.

“We managed to get a lot of the painting done in advance. Then we covered it up so it wouldn’t confuse pilots,” Elwood said.

A private jet was the first to use the longer runway, which now measures 8,000 feet. An 8:40 a.m. United Express flight Wednesday was the first commercial aircraft to take advantage of the added pavement.

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Service on United Express, operated by SkyWest, was most affected by the project. The final 45 days of the work required taking navigational equipment, a localizer, off line so it could be relocated, and the existing runway was shortened from 7,000 to 6,500 feet to accommodate a safety zone and construction on the south end. Tailwinds caused problems for United with the shortened runway and overcast skies below a certain level meant the airline couldn’t fly into Aspen while the localizer was out of service. In addition, the runway was shortened to 6,000 feet for six days, when United couldn’t fly its jets in and out at all. Frontier’s turboprop service was unaffected.

SkyWest couldn’t offer a tally of the total number of United flights diverted or canceled during the project Wednesday, but SkyWest spokesman Wes Horrocks said numerous accommodations were put in place for travelers, including a no-fee waiver for those who wanted to alter their travel plans and additional staffing at the local airport when it was needed. Some flights were diverted to Eagle, and passengers were taken from there by bus, he said.

The extension of the runway is expected to ease weight restrictions that force commercial airlines to leave seats empty in order to take off with sufficient fuel during warm weather. It will also provide opportunities to add flights to more distant locales, according to airport officials.

American Eagle Airlines will begin service to Aspen this winter because the longer runway makes the operation feasible, according to airline officials.

The Federal Aviation Administration paid for the bulk of the runway project; the airport’s share was $2.4 million.

janet@aspentimes.com