County Manager answers questions about Aspen airport’s future | AspenTimes.com

County Manager answers questions about Aspen airport’s future

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Pitkin County manager Jon Peacock and Aspen resident Jeanette Darnauer discuss a point at one of the coffee chats at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.

Jon Peacock has been the Pitkin County manager for 31/2 years and is now facing one of the biggest projects and hires of his career with the airport redesign and hiring of a new airport director. Peacock has been the acting airport director since Jim Elwood left the position in September. Peacock has hosted 10 coffee chats at the airport where residents were invited to talk with him and share their thoughts and ideas about the future of the airport.

The Aspen Times sat down with Peacock on Friday and discussed what he's learned from the public and how the search is going for a new airport director.

The Aspen Times: You began the coffee chats a month ago and have 10 so far — how many people, on average, are stopping by to chat?

Jon Peacock: We've had four to six people at all of the chats. We had the last chat (Thursday), so next week we'll begin our open houses, starting on Oct. 30, at the Aspen library in the afternoon, then on Nov. 12, we'll be at the airport operations center. The open-house sessions are open to any member of the public that's interested. It's another opportunity to provide us with feedback on the alternatives we're considering. We'll have poster boards set up with images of some of the potential options we're looking at.

AT: What are some of the topics the public wants to know about?

JP: I've heard a real broad range of concerns. We've heard from residents close to the airport with concerns about the potential impact of noise. We've heard concerns about how much growth the changes we're looking at would encourage. We've heard a lot of concern about what happens if we don't address the airport needs, like what would happen to the commercial service and how would people access our community. So, the concerns we're hearing really aren't necessarily addressed in this study but would be addressed when we do an environmental assessment on any improvements. What we're doing now is really trying to get an airport layout plan that addresses the safety and geometry concerns of the (Federal Aviation Administration)– so we can move to an environmental assessment.

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AT: When will the environmental assessments begin?

JP: The environmental assessment on the airfield, on the changes we've been talking about as a result of the air-services study, can't begin until we have an approved airport layout plan. We're anticipating having that by June or July of 2015 and anticipating starting an environmental assessment as soon as possible after that. We've been having a lot of community discussion right now, and we have some momentum with information out in the community. That will make for a better, more informed environmental-assessment process.

AT: Is there any one paramount issue that keeps coming up?

JP: Not necessarily one paramount issue that keeps coming up, but I would say 75 to 80 percent of the people participating really have indicated that they want to see us make changes to accommodate this next generation of regional jets — that it would not benefit our community to not make changes to make sure that services remain available. There are some that have participated in the chats who think differently — that think we don't need to make these types of changes and could serve as primarily a general aviation airport. But really, the majority of folks want to see us do something. There hasn't been a lot of input in terms of which option to move forward with. I think that will be left mostly to the open houses. Really, it's been about discussing what is the problem as we see it and getting feedback as to whether the county should be taking some decisive action.

AT: Are you getting any sense of what the public is expecting at this point? Are there any fears (like jets that are too big) or particular positives they're looking forward to?

JP: That's an interesting question because of the different views we're getting from the public. We've had a number of folks enthused about possibly having regional jet aircraft that can serve broader markets, maybe direct flights to New York or someplace else. We don't know if that's possible yet, but certainly, we've heard some desire for that. We've been asked if the changes and new aircraft could possibly reduce fares, but we can't answer that right now. We've heard concerns about the future types of aircraft — how big will they be, will they be noisier? I guess you could say we've been getting a lot of impact-related questions. Generally, we're expecting this new generation of aircraft will be more fuel-efficient, quieter and could provide different types of market opportunities. Until we know for sure which aircraft will be allowed to access our airport, we can't get specific about their capabilities.

AT: Have you gotten any new ideas from the pubic concerning the airport?

JP: I don't know if anything has caught us by surprise, but we're hearing a lot of interest in how we move people from the airport to their final destination, generally meaning Aspen or Snowmass, and could we be more creative in that way to take more tires off the road. We've talked about light rail, we've talked about other people-moving ideas like gondolas, and we've had ideas similar to what Disneyland does, where they take your bags and they just show up at your hotel. We're hearing some creative ideas that certainly can be looked at as we get into design elements around the environmental assessment.

AT: How's the search for a new airport director going?

JP: We're still going through our due diligence. We're very lucky to have a group of very qualified candidates. They bring a lot of different backgrounds and skillsets to the table. This is a really important hire for the county. We're at the beginning of potentially doing a major set of improvements at the airport, so we want to make sure we have the right match for the community and the organization, and we want to make sure the candidate has the right experience to really make this scope of projects successful, so I'm taking my time. I would say this is one of the biggest hires I've had to make. I would expect we'll be announcing something to the community next week.

AT: Is there any one paramount aspect you're looking for with the candidates?

JP: The successful candidate will need to accommodate many interests. They'll need to be able to interact and communicate effectively with the community. They'll need to listen authentically and address community concerns authentically. They're going to have a lot of experience in operating an airport and running major projects at an airport. They'll also have to understand the relationships at a state and federal level that are necessary in order to keep our funding resources,as well as the discussions about the regulatory environment we operate in. If it was just one skillset we were looking for, this would be a much easier decision, but it's not.

AT: In your opinion, what kind of effect would it have on Aspen if the airport doesn't expand to allow the new generation of jets to access the airport?

JP: Right now, we're not seeing another regional jet aircraft that can provide similar service to what we have today that can operate at our airport in the future. If we're not able to accommodate those aircraft, we're going to have a greatly reduced commercial service. Would we still likely have some level of commercial service on smaller aircraft? Yes. Would it likely accommodate the 250,000 enplanements that we have right now with our commercial service? Absolutely not. I can't tell you what the percentage reduction would be, but we would most likely be using 19 to 20-seat aircraft. During the busy seasons, we don't have the airspace to do a lot more operations. So 40 percent of our visitors, we estimate, come into our community through the airport. That would mean that we would have less people accessing our community through the airport and more people through rubber tire.

AT: As the acting airport manager this September, have you learned anything new about the position?

JP: I don't know if I've learned anything new, but I sure do have a whole new appreciation for the quality of staff that we have at the airport right now and the pride they take in their jobs and their facility. I knew that from a distance, but it's always something you appreciate more up close. I also appreciate to a greater degree the amount of community interface that this position has to have in order for the airport, and our community, to be successful. It also reinforced to me that this is really the community's airport, and this community has some very different opinions about what the airport could be. It takes a lot of skill to try and find the right path that accommodates as many interests as possible.

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com

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