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Endless Aspen airport planning, Covid led diretor to retire

John Kinney, the Pitkin County airport director, answers Michael Miracle's questions about the new airport concepts at the open public meeting Thursday at the Pitkin County Library.
Anna Stonehouse/Aspen Times file photo

With the re-development of Aspen’s airport on hold because of the pandemic and the probability of several more years of planning high, the airport’s director decided to call it quits last week.

“My personality is more let’s develop and build it and solve problems with creative solutions,” John Kinney said in an interview Friday. “Planning, after six years, is getting a little dry.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also accelerated his retirement plans.

“I’ve been working out of my house since March, so I kind of got a preview (of the retirement life),” Kinney said. “I started thinking maybe the time is right.”

Kinney, 60, came to Aspen six years ago from the Los Angeles International Airport and has worked in airports in Scottsdale, Long Beach, Chicago and Denver during his career.

“You have to have a bit of a gypsy in you to have this job,” he said.

During his tenure in Aspen, numerous changes to the aging, outdated airport facility have been contemplated, proposed, debated and studied. That included a three-year federal environmental assessment that looked at moving the runway and building a larger terminal building, as well as an 18-month visioning process that brought together approximately 100 people representing various facets, expertise and viewpoints in the Aspen and Pitkin County community.

When it was all said and done, the lead committee suggested to the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners — who will have the final say on the project — that instead of moving the runway 80 feet west and widening it from 100 to 150 feet, the taxiway along Highway 82 should instead be moved. That would lessen the construction time, the amount of concrete that would need to be torn up and repaved and the ensuing environmental impacts.

However, just as that committee was about to present its findings to the county board, the virus pandemic descended and stalled the project in its tracks.

“We did get side-tracked and we lost some momentum,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. “But we’re not stopping. It has not been wasted effort.”

Still, if the county board accepts the community committee’s recommendation to move the taxiway instead of the runway, it will trigger another possibly three-year-long federal environmental assessment and, probably, yet another round of community-based planning around the project, Kinney said.

In the meantime, the airline industry is changing, the economy is changing and construction costs are rising, he said.

“Been there, done that,” Kinney said.

Peacock said a new environmental assessment isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. County officials have not yet heard from the Federal Aviation Administration whether the taxiway idea can be accomplished through an amendment to the existing environmental assessment or whether they need to start again from scratch and begin a new process.

“Has it been delayed?” Peacock said. “Absolutely. But we’re still going to be trying to move forward with conversations.”

Commissioners have been trying to identify a time and process to take public comment on the recommendations the community committee presented to the board, he said.

For Kinney, the delay in the airport project allowed him to focus on his family and his life outside the airport. His oldest daughter is about to give birth to his first grandchild in two weeks, while a second daughter is set to get married in a month. Both live in Denver. His son is a firefighter at the airport and also works for Roaring Fork Fire and Rescue.

“I want to take some time off and catch my breath,” he said. “I worked too much.”

He and his wife, Joy, plan to remain in their house downvalley and Kinney said he wants more time to enjoy the Rocky Mountains.

“My one regret is I didn’t spend enough time outdoors,” he said. “I didn’t do enough fly-fishing. I didn’t do enough golfing. I didn’t do enough skiing.”

Kinney said he also wants to set up a wood-working shop at his home, though he also didn’t rule out taking another airport job sometime in the future.

“I’m very blessed to have the opportunity to come up here to Aspen and be here for six years,” he said. “It has been a very rewarding six years.”

Peacock said Kinney has made significant improvements at the airport while dealing with a “really challenging” facility that has been cobbled together over the years while remaining the third-busiest airport in Colorado behind Denver and Colorado Springs.

“He did a really good job making safety and security improvements,” Peacock said. “And he did a good job paying attention to the customer experience.”

Peacock does not plan to begin recruiting to fill Kinney’s position immediately because he wants to wait and see how Covid will affect the airlines and the airport.

In the meantime, Assistant County Manager Rich Englehart has taken over as interim airport director and said he wants to maintain stability at the airport until a replacement for Kinney can be hired. “John left things in good hands,” Englehart said Friday. “He hired a good staff … (and) morale is good.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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