County nixes chopper charters
ASPEN Private jet owners will have to find other ways to Aspen when the airport closes this spring – and the Pitkin County commissioners recently ruled out private helicopter charters.”The only helicopter operations are going to be emergency operations,” said Jim Elwood, director of aviation at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. With a closure pending from April 9 to June 7, some jet owners contacted Elwood to ask about charter helicopter connections from airports in Rifle, Grand Junction or Eagle.”We talked it over and decided that was not a good decision,” Elwood said, citing safety and scheduling concerns during the tight 60-day closure and paving project.”Sixty days is a limited time … it’s an enormous project,” said Michael Owsley, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, which is also the airport board. To simplify the work, the commissioners decided against any operations but rescue or life-flight helicopters.
“It’s not a public service,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield. The high-end helicopter ride would serve only a few well-heeled visitors, he said. And getting the job done on schedule is top priority.”All it takes is one disaster,” said Commissioner Dorothea Farris, who said that, with all the workers and heavy equipment on site, safety is the primary concern.”I was surprised,” said Doug Sheffer, owner of DBS Helicopters in Rifle. With the planned runway closure, Sheffer expected to run shuttles from Rifle to Aspen for private jet owners. “I thought it was a decision the FAA had to make.”DBS has been in business for 16 years running everything from search-and-rescue to scenic flights or dropping technicians on peaks to repair towers, and Sheffer saw the brief airport closure as a possible opportunity.
Sheffer said he is frustrated at the loss of potential business – rides that would earn him $1,000 each trip.”We were gearing up for the possibility,” he said. “That would’ve been an opportunity.”Sheffer has no interest in protesting the decision, saying, “It isn’t the end of the world … I don’t understand it, but I’m fine with it.”A helicopter requires 40 square feet of landing area – “A lot less than an aircraft,” Sheffer said – and a 50-foot clearance area. And flights could carry between four and six people, depending on luggage, he said.
Sheffer said Aspen already caters to a niche market with its general aviation terminal and many private jet connections – he remembers a golfer sending a private plane to fetch a set of clubs in California at a cost of $15,000 – and he said his services, which come at a fraction of the cost of operating a private jet, would not have been out of the ordinary for Aspen.”I think they’re missing a service for passengers,” Sheffer said.The airport control tower will remain open to warn any approaching aircraft or to guide in rescue helicopters.Jet owners who park on the apron at Sardy Field are free to leave their planes there during construction, Elwood said, but at 10 a.m. April 9, “It’ll be here for the duration.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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