Expanding the airport
Forget the “S-curves” of Highway 82 – the true “Entrance to Aspen” lies at the foot of Shale Bluffs.The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport brings more than 400,000 passengers to town each year, and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy through everything from employee salaries to visitors shopping. It’s the third-busiest airport in the state, thanks to heavy ski-season traffic.The airport is vital to Aspen – no question. It’s also the source of major noise, traffic and disturbance, even more so if it enters a multi-year construction cycle. So it’s understandable that the 20-year airport master plan now being crafted – a plan that envisions expansions to both the runway and the terminal building – would trigger a spirited Aspen debate.Thus far, as county commissioners and a citizen advisory panel have studied the options, the discussion has been fairly civil. But things could heat up next month, when the completed master plan enters the formal review process.Fasten your seat belts.”Corner to corner” Those who have proposed changes to the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport over the years have learned to tread lightly.”Issues about the airport were always sort of prevalent around the county … and it was always a very sensitive policy issue,” recalled Suzanne Konchan, Pitkin County manager from 1995 to 2000.Konchan was fairly new to the county manager’s office when the infamous airport battle of 1996 – when Pitkin County voters shot down a proposed runway expansion and the addition of 737 jet service to Aspen – flared up. But she was a seasoned veteran by the time county officials began discussing their outdated airport master plan in 2000.The last Aspen/Pitkin County Airport Master Plan was completed in the early 1980s, when both Continental and United Airlines were “in full swing,” Konchan said. More than a decade later, county officials determined that drastic changes in the airline industry, the Federal Aviation Administration and Aspen necessitated a new master plan.”And, rather than come in and do amendments to the old master plan, they decided they would rather have a long-term vision, and know what’s on the horizon,” Konchan said.This involved the hiring of a brand-new team. The county chose Barnard Dunkelberg & Co., an Oklahoma-based consulting group, and hired Konchan – who resigned as county manager three years ago for a move to Florida – to act as the county’s liaison on the project.The group traveled to Aspen early last year for “a comprehensive look at the airport, pretty much from corner to corner,” said Jim Elwood, aviation director since 2001. The team inspected the airport from top to bottom, then asked the county commissioners if there were any issues they wanted to exclude from the analysis.”They said `just one – respect the vote of the people in 1996 that said we don’t want 737s,'” Elwood recalled. “That has allowed the master plan team to take a very fresh look at the airport.”The team focused on three key areas: the runway, the terminal building and the open land on the airport’s west side. Predictably, several months later the team’s “working paper” suggested three strategies: lengthen the runway, expand the terminal and reserve the west side – really, the only open space available on the airport property – for future development.”The Aspen airport has a pretty limited piece of ground, in terms of width and length,” Konchan said, listing Highway 82, the Roaring Fork River and the surrounding mountains as de facto boundaries for airport growth. “Yes, there’s some developable land on the west side, and there’s the potential to expand … but it’s better to reserve it for potential uses in the future, because, really, you don’t have anywhere else to go.”The final draft of the master plan will include this suggestion, as well as the team’s advice on the runway and terminal building, Konchan said. A roomier runwayThe last draft of the working paper – presented Aug. 25 to citizens and stakeholders on the county’s Airport Master Plan Study Advisory Committee – offered the planning team’s support of a 1,000-foot extension to the runway’s south end.This extension would only allow for takeoffs to the north, Elwood notes. It would not lead to an expanded flight schedule, nor would it usher in a new era of larger jets.”The runway extension is not related to bigger airplanes,” Elwood said. “The master plan team came to the conclusion early on … that our future is really based on regional jets.”Regional jets are smaller aircraft with wingspans of 95 feet or less and a capacity of 100 passengers. Airport officials set their sights on regional jets not long after the ’96 vote, and all master plan suggestions will be geared toward this type of plane.Aircraft manufacturers recently discontinued the BAE 146 and RJ 85, the two commercial planes that currently fly into Aspen. With these planes coming off of the market, officials said, the airport’s transition to regional jets is especially timely.A terminal in transitionSeptember 11 brought sweeping changes to the airline industry in terms of service as well as security. The Aspen airport must reflect this shift, and turn its terminal into “the most flexible space possible to deal with future changes in the airline industry,” said Mark MacFarland, a member of the consulting team.”Everybody realizes that there will need to be passenger terminal improvements in the future,” MacFarland told the advisory committee in August. “The task now is to understand what the short-term improvements are and what the long-term improvements might be.”Whichever route Pitkin County chooses, consultants said, airport officials need to enlarge the terminal soon. “While certain portions of the terminal building are adequate for today’s needs, major portions of the building are inadequate for existing and future passenger demands,” consultants state in the working paper.Several “constraint areas” were studied by the master plan team during their review of the airport. Chief among them:- Office space for airlines. “Inadequate operations space and equipment storage space compete with office and baggage handling functions,” the working paper reads.- The airport departure lounge. “Space needs to be provided for multiple departures, due to frequent off-schedule operations. Existing space has also been lost to expanded security screening requirements,” the paper reads.- Security screening checkpoint. “The location of the queuing area for security is problematic, because it requires passengers to traverse back and forth across a ramp through the queuing line,” the paper reads. “It does not leave a proper circulation area from the ticket lobby to the baggage claim hall.”- Ticket lobby/general seating areas. “Implementation of checked baggage screening has occupied a portion of the ticket lobby and displaced both ticket queuing and seating areas,” the paper reads.The current terminal measures 44,000 square feet. According to master plan estimates, the building is far too small.”If a new terminal were to be built to accommodate current levels of activity, the gross area would be approximately 67,000 feet,” says the working paper. However, if the airport wants to plan for increased future use, a thoroughly renovated terminal would measure between 75,000 and 80,000 feet. The working paper suggests several options, both short- and long-term, for terminal improvements. Each long-term option involves construction, mostly in the form of additions to the north or south end of the building. The paper also suggests a split-level, two-story terminal to improve passenger flow.As for immediate needs, the draft plan suggests that the passenger boarding area or “holdroom,” the security screening area and the airline offices receive priority. Simple suggested projects include the addition of a hallway to connect the ticketing and baggage claim areas; the reconfiguration of the concessions area; and the relocation of the airport administration offices, which would provide an additional 1,250 square feet of terminal space. The team has not determined what plan will ultimately be presented to Pitkin County commissioners. However, as MacFarland told the advisory committee on Aug. 25, the solution will take the current economic climate into account.”We’re not going to suggest something that’s not feasible from a financial standpoint,” he said.Options, opinions Elwood, for one, is staying out of the impending debate. The proposed expansions of the terminal and runway would, theoretically, make his job easier, but he’s not ready to endorse anything.”I’m here to make sure that the issues of the community are addressed in the master plan,” he said.The task of advocacy, Elwood said, falls to the members of the Airport Master Plan Study Advisory Committee. Pitkin County Commissioners tapped a variety of “stakeholders” to serve on the committee, which reviews the working papers and draft plans as they become available.The advisory committee comprises a variety of airport users, including passengers and pilots; airport neighbors, especially residents of Woody Creek and the nearby North 40 development; and representatives of several local businesses. “Their purpose is to bring forward and challenge the master plan team to make sure that they’ve included the perspectives of those individuals and those representing larger groups,” Elwood said.The tourism industry supports airport growth. Bill Tomcich, president of the reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, noted recently that the airport offers visitors both their first and last looks at Aspen.”We’d like to make it as pleasant for visitors as possible,” agreed Hana Pevny, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.Additional voices on the advisory panel vary. Some oppose growth completely, while others fear growing too fast. When presented with drawings of potential terminal expansions, Woody Creek resident Phil Holstein said, “It’s very elegant and gives everybody a lot of elbow room, but it’s hardly necessary for an airport like Aspen’s.”Some, understandably enough, just fear the commotion that comes with construction. North 40 residents already deal with jet noise on a daily basis, and some say the addition of construction crews would be nearly unbearable.Another noisy nuisance: If the terminal building is moved during expansion, it would no longer block noise from departing jets.”That’s going to be too loud for us,” noted North 40 resident Jackie Francis during a recent meeting.But some residents worry that the advisory process doesn’t have room for every opinion. Dwight Shellman, a resident of Woody Creek and a former Pitkin County commissioner, frequently attends Study Advisory Committee meetings and doesn’t seem to be a believer in the “public comment” process. “It’s like trying to turn a battleship,” Shellman said. Shellman coordinates a group of airport neighbors, including a large constituency in Woody Creek, who believe the process “is not really available for any changes that our input would provide.” That’s partly due, Shellman said, to the tourism industry influence over large community issues.Rather than participating at the advisory level, Shellman said, “we’re going to wait for the plan to be complete, and we will take it up with the Planning [and Zoning] Commission.”Shellman’s group doesn’t oppose airport growth, but supports what he calls common-sense solutions to today’s constraints in the terminal.”The short answer, that’s been apparent for years, is that we need to add about 2,500 feet,” Shellman said. “There is a need to add at the baggage end of the airport and to the downvalley end for more operational space for the airlines, and we need to include an enlargement for the holding area.” Preliminary discussions among county officials seem to support airport growth. In June, Elwood joined the master plan team at a meeting of the Pitkin County commissioners in order to present their preliminary findings. Three of five commissioners (Mick Ireland and Shellie Roy were absent) offered their tentative support of the runway and terminal expansions. But the real test will come next month, when commissioners, county planners and the general public will review the completed master plan.The future of flyingThe final draft of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport master plan should appear in mid-November, when consultants finally present the document to county commissioners. After a quick review, commissioners will hand the plan to the planning and zoning board for additional comments.From there, the document will receive a public review.”It will go through all of the public hearing processes that would be expected of any significant document,” Elwood said. “The community will have plenty of opportunity to voice their thoughts, questions, and concerns about the document and what might be included in it.”Several months will likely pass before the county commissioners make a final decision. Still, that’s a plus for airport stakeholders, Elwood said.”What we were hoping for is, by doing those steps, that the master plan, when we get to the public hearing component, has heard most of the community perspectives that may come forward,” Elwood said.Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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