County can’t just say ‘no’ to Aspen airport changes
May 23, 2012
ASPEN – Setting aside 80,000 square feet for a new Aspen-Pitkin County Airport terminal doesn’t mean a building of that size will be constructed, but the county will have less say about accommodating a second, and even a third, fixed-base operator at the airport.
That was the gist of a lengthy discussion Tuesday about an updated master plan for the airport. County commissioners quizzed John Bauer, manager of the Denver Airports District Office for the Federal Aviation Administration, about the county’s obligations when it comes to future development at the airport and to what extent the county can say “no.”
When it comes to fixed-base operations – private businesses that offer aircraft services and sell fuel – commissioners will have little choice but to make space for a second one, or even a third, if adequate physical space and market demand exist, Bauer said. That would be the case under the existing airport master plan, as well, he said.
Interest among various parties in establishing a competing fixed-base operation at the airport, where Atlantic Aviation is currently the sole such operator, is driving a master-plan process that is setting aside space for various future facilities, including fixed-base operators, a larger terminal and a proposed parking garage.
Because the airport has accepted FAA grant funds – it has received some $64 million in state and FAA money over the past decade – it is obligated to meet various FAA requirements, or “grant assurances,” Bauer explained.
In short, the assurances include accommodating additional fixed-base operators as space allows and the market dictates, he said. Alternatives in the draft master plan place a second fixed-base operator on the east, or Highway 82, side of the airport or on the west side, off Owl Creek Road. The latter would require a second taxiway, parallel to the runway.
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Fixed-base-operator proposals would have to meet the airport’s minimum standards for the operation, but that wouldn’t preclude a proposal for something larger, Bauer said, when commissioners asked if the county could prevent the development of large hangars for private jets on the west side.
“Could we say, ‘Nope, sorry’?” Commissioner Rachel Richards asked.
Denying a proposal requires a “clear, justifiable reason,” Bauer said.
“OK, justifiable reason: We don’t want 200,000 square feet of hangar space on the west side. What discretion do we have?” Commissioner Jack Hatfield asked.
The FAA would want an explanation, Bauer responded. If such development is out of character with Aspen and the airport, the agency would want to know why it’s out of character, he said.
Taking west-side development off the table entirely is also out of the question, Bauer advised.
“Those grant assurances assure me that we might get something at the airport that we don’t want,” Hatfield said.
The final master plan is now expected to be ready for formal county review by August, according to Jim Elwood, aviation director at the airport. While the document will be adopted by commissioners, the FAA will approve parts of the plan – its forecast for airport operations and the layout plan for facilities.
Some elements – a new terminal and parking garage, for example – are essentially up to the community, according to Bauer.
“You’re not going to see the FAA saying, ‘Aspen, you need to build an 80,000-square-foot terminal,'” he said.
But grant assurances related to economic nondiscrimination and avoiding the granting of exclusive rights mean denial of a proposed fixed-base operator could result in a complaint to the agency, Bauer said. Future FAA funding for the airport could ultimately be at stake, he said.
Various elements of the airport master plan have come under fire of late, particularly by a group that calls itself Citizens for Responsible Airport Development, founded by Cliff Runge, an owner of the former fixed-base operator at the airport.
Commissioners sought clarification Tuesday on how much say they have over future development at the airport and stressed that individual new facilities will go through a review process that is separate from the master-plan update.
“The fact that we have 80,000 square feet reserved does not mean we will build an 80,000-square-foot terminal. I’ll say that bluntly,” Commissioner Rob Ittner said.
“We’re not getting railroaded on this by any means,” he added later.
The FAA is not likely to loosen up the wingspan restriction in place at the Aspen airport, Bauer added as a side note to Tuesday’s discussion.
Any change from the 95-foot wingspan limit now in place would require approval by both the FAA and the county, according to Elwood, and Commissioner Michael Owsley stressed that commissioners have expressed no desire to take the issue up.
A question about how to measure wingspan on aircraft that have “winglets” that tilt upward at an angle at the end of the wings was kicked up from the FAA’s Denver office to a regional office and then to Washington, Bauer said.
Prompting the question in Aspen was the new Gulfstream 650, a jet that isn’t yet certified for use but that has a wingspan of nearly 100 feet when the winglets are taken into account.
The FAA has clarified that the distance from wing tip to wing tip constitutes wingspan, Bauer said. Drop a line from the tip of the winglets to the ground, and measure the distance between those two points on the ground – that’s the wingspan, he said.
The tight space between the taxiway and the runway at Aspen’s airport drove the 95-foot limit that’s in place, he explained.
“We always err on the side of safety,” Bauer said. If the county asked the FAA to revisit the wingspan limit, the agency would consider it, but that doesn’t guarantee the agency would be willing to alter it, he said.