Demand for bigger airport does not exist
There appears to be yet another dust-up brewing in Pitkin County, this time over the county commissioners’ ability to scrap a recently adopted (2004-05) 20-year master plan for the Aspen airport in favor of a new, greatly expanded 50-year plan that would include a new terminal of approximately 80,000 square feet, effectively doubling the size of the current 44,000-square-foot terminal.
A growing number of well-traveled and informed people are beginning to question whether this scale of expansion is justified in order to meet realistic future projections; therefore perhaps what follows should be considered and might prove helpful in the commissioners’ ongoing deliberations on the subject.
Going back 50 years or more, thanks to the wisdom and vision of Tom Sardy and successive county commissioners, the airport now comprises 573 acres of land and has undergone numerous upgrades in order to improve the safety of operations and to meet the needs of the greater Aspen community. These improvements have included an attractive and functional new terminal, a LOC/DME instrument approach, several terminal renovations, expansion of ramp space, a control tower, radar and the lengthening of the airport’s single runway to 8,006 feet.
However, due to the surrounding terrain, Federal Aviation Administration regulations and Title X of the Pitkin County code, the airport has several unique operating limitations that must be factored in. These include the airport’s single, contra-flow runway (most landings are to the east and takeoffs to the west) aircraft are limited to a 100,000-pound gross landing weight and a wingspan of 95 feet. Additionally, the hours of operation are under a curfew because of the county’s noise ordinance.
In 2010 there were 37,603 operations at the airport (an average of 103 per day), and of these, 53 percent were general aviation aircraft, 21 percent were air taxi, and 26 percent were commercial airlines. During a busy week in Aspen the ramps will be crowded to overflowing with more than $3 billion worth of heavy iron, and in season several major carriers now offer dozens of scheduled nonstop commercial flights aboard regional jets to many major cities around the country.
Given the Aspen airport’s operating limitations and its predominant use by general-aviation and air-taxi operators, what seems to make the most sense looking forward would be a substantial expansion of the facilities designed to serve the major users (a second fixed-base operation on the south side of the field, for example). Also a more realistic, say about 20,000-square-foot, expansion of the commercial terminal that would include four enclosed and climate-controlled moveable boarding gangways and a new control tower that offered full-field views.
Any talk of an 80,000-square-foot addition to the terminal seems to me to be pie-in-the-sky thinking and totally unwarranted in scale and cost to meet likely future demand, given the physical limitations of the airport and the finite number of residents and visitors who can be comfortably accommodated in the county at any one time.
We all should know by now that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and it is way past time to ask ourselves and our representatives just how many “bridges to nowhere” we can afford. Though the federal government will pick up most of the tab for Aspen’s airport improvements, the Fed is now $17 trillion in debt, and the fact is that we all wind up paying for everyone else’s free lunch in one way or another.
The folks in Aspen and Pitkin County long have been known to be trend-setters, and the people who now serve Pitkin County as commissioners could help to set an example for the rest of the nation by demonstrating once again that they are responsible stewards of the public trust.
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