Debate flies in circles, but Airport Advisory Board panel lands at compliance with FAA requirements for funding |

Debate flies in circles, but Airport Advisory Board panel lands at compliance with FAA requirements for funding

The main terminal of the Aspen Airport.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Is the airport “wrapped in the flag” or does it belong solely to Aspen? Members of the public and the Airport Advisory Board talked in circles around that question for hours, ultimately landing somewhere in the middle.

The board voted to recommend approval of the Aviation Demand Forecast to the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners on Thursday. The forecast document is an integral part of the Aviation Layout Plan, which the county is working to submit to the Federal Aviation Administration to secure funding for renovation projects. 

The vote was continued from last month’s meeting, giving time to the board members to consider the 78-page document that forecasts the airport and the city of Aspen’s demands until 2042. 

It shows a mid-range annual growth rate of about 1.3% for commercial traffic, with itinerant general aviation trending downward. That 1.3% growth rate number is above the 2020 Common Ground Recommendations’ goal growth rate of 0.8%, but below FAA projections. 

Board Chair Jacquelyn Francis and other members of the Visioning Committee that wrote the Common Ground Recommendations, reminded the board and the public that those recommendations were meant to be aspirational, not stringent. She characterized the 1.3% growth rate as a success.

She repeatedly expressed sympathy toward those who wanted to reject the forecast, noting that “we are not discussing widening the runway to bring in noisier stinkier jets; nobody wants that”; but rather, the board was discussing the forecast’s direct tie to FAA funding, safety, and the future of aircraft. 

Board members Bruce Gordon and Valerie Braun voted “no.” Gordon said that he wanted to see more compromise from the FAA. 

“I feel that they are not willing partners. They’re making this a standard airport,” he said. “And this airport is absolutely different from Gunnison, Austin, any other airport that I know that I’ve flown into most of them. This is a unique airport. And I think it needs to be dealt with uniquely now.”

But at the FAA’s visit to the board and the county commissioners, they made it clear that FAA standards apply across all airports. Francis agreed that the FAA rules do not serve Aspen well but said this forecast is not the avenue to pursue that change. 

“I strongly believe it’s a bigger risk for our airport to say ‘no’ today,” she said. “I feel there’s a bigger risk of having cascading growth that we’re not looking forward to by encouraging the private side and not the commercial side. … I feel we will be shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t go forward with this fleet mix recommendation.”

The clock is ticking for the airport to get in line for federal funds from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Without an approved Airport Layout Plan by fall 2025, the airport could lose its chance to receive up to tens of millions more federal dollars for airport maintenance. The land-side renovations alone are expected to cost $300 million. 

The board considered tagging a recommendation to county staff to explore options to exclude the A220-300 from the forecast’s critical fleet mix, but airport and county staff noted that the FAA already said they would not approve an Airport Layout Plan without it. 

About 30 people showed up in person to listen to the discussion, and some spoke during the public comment period. Most in the room urged the board to reject the forecast, but some spoke up in favor. 

Critics urged the board to delay to follow up on air quality studies, upcoming electric aircraft innovations, and to find other ways to get around FAA regulations. Proponents wanted to ensure the airport keeps up with the times and support the local tourism industry. 

The motion to recommend approval for the Board of County Commissioners passed 5-2. However, the board is still only an advisory committee, and the commissioners are not beholden to the board’s decision. 

The county commissioners will consider a resolution to approve the forecast likely in late June, which will come with its own public comment period.