Dueling views on who should run the FBO at Aspen’s airport, with some still pushing for the county to do so | AspenTimes.com

Dueling views on who should run the FBO at Aspen’s airport, with some still pushing for the county to do so

A plane waits to be boarded in 2022 at the Aspen Airport.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

As the county works on a new contract with current fixed base operator Atlantic Aviation, community members still hold out hope that the county commissioners will direct staff to take on FBO management themselves. 

On April 14, the county announced its finalist to move forward in contract negotiations for fixed-base operations at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. The incumbent, Atlantic Aviation, beat out a field of six other proposers. 

Pitkin County Deputy County Manager Rich Englehart said the commissioners have final say whether to accept or deny the contract, start the negotiating process with the second-choice applicant Signature Flight Support, or deny all applicants and direct staff to look into sponsor-operated FBO — or the county operating the FBO itself or hiring a third party to do so. 

“They can’t react until they see a negotiated contract,” said Englehart. 

The county and Atlantic both indicated that negotiating the contract is a top priority. An exact timeline is not clear at this point, but the process is staring down the barrel of a Sept. 30 expiration of the current contract between Atlantic and the county. 

Changes from the current to new lease, from the county’s perspective, include passing over responsibility for de-icing operations, taking over leases for patio and tie-down shelters, and greater sustainability commitments. 

Chris Davis, procurement manager for the county, said the that the county taking on FBO operations would be more than they could handle. 

“The expertise of staffing (the FBO), economies of scale with the (jet) fuel, bringing in external investments that the community is not leveraged for the improvements because we’d have to go out for either community investment tax dollars or basically bonding projects from within the community,” he said. 

Still, many community members are gunning for the commissioners to deny any contract and work toward operating the FBO when it gets in front of the board. 

One of the most vocal groups is Aspen Fly Right, which has advocated for pumping the brakes on making decisions at the airport that would result in larger planes allowed to land here — particularly planes with wingspans larger than the current 95-foot limit allowed by an FAA modification of standards. 

The FAA said at a recent public meeting with county commissioners and the Airport Advisory Board that it will withhold discretionary funding — potentially hundreds of millions of dollars — if the airport does not widen the runway/taxiway separation to allow planes with wider wingspans to land. 

That would endanger the up to $500 million renovation project currently in planning between the airport and the FAA, which relies on discretionary funding.

But Aspen Fly Right President Amory Lovins said that money can be recouped by the county running the FBO, as all money generated within the airport must be used for airport purposes. 

“And we have not been saying bigger planes are inherently bad, and we shouldn’t have them,” Lovins said. “We’ve been saying it’s premature to decide whether we need them.”

The CRJ-700 planes that make up the vast majority of commercial planes that fly into Aspen’s airport are nearing the end of their serviceability. There is debate over how long that is exactly but in the range of 10-30 years is generally accepted. 

In a draft aviation demand forecast presented to the Airport Advisory Board on Thursday, airport layout plan consultant Brad Jacobsen, of Jacobsen Daniels, told the board that their forecast puts the CRJ-700s with about 10 years left of commercial viability, or that airlines might be inclined to get rid of them soon. 

To answer the claim that the county is not equipped to run an FBO, Amory said that responsibility can be contracted out in a different manner set out by the original request for proposals back in 2022. 

“The obvious answer would be to hire an experienced FBO operator as a contractor to run the FBO but to do so under county direction,” he said. “In other words, the county would control terms, conditions, behaviors, charges, fuel pricing in particular, and the amount of the revenues that it takes to re-invest in the airport.”

Douglas Wilson is the president of FBO Partners LLC, a firm that advises FBOs. He said that sponsor-operated FBOs are unusual in an airport as large as Aspen’s, even with the 83% of flights falling under general aviation to commercial’s 17%. 

“Many airport FBOs ‘accidentally’ became an airport-run FBO when a private-sector company failed. As a result, it is exceedingly rare for an airport of Aspen’s size to operate the FBO,” he said in an email. “I can think of less than a handful of airport-run FBOs of Aspen’s size.”

The FBO selection process is running in conjunction with designing an Airport Layout Plan to submit to the FAA. Decisions on both will go before the board of county commissioners, which all require time for public comment.