FAA tells Pitkin County and airport that restrictions on safety and access are not allowed | AspenTimes.com

FAA tells Pitkin County and airport that restrictions on safety and access are not allowed

John Bauer of the Federal Aviation Administration answered questions about FAA's position on renovations at the Aspen Pitkin County Airport for nearly three hours in front of Pitkin County commissioners, members of the Airport Advisory Board, and the public.
Abbie Cheney/Pitkin County

In a meeting as much for the public as for Pitkin County and the Airport Advisory Board, the Federal Aviation Administration laid out its position on the airport: Widen the taxiway runway separation or forgo the bulk of FAA funding for airport renovations.

The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners and the Airport Advisory Board have long wanted the FAA to come answer a series of questions related to the FAA’s regulations for the land- and air-side renovations for the airport. 

At a special meeting Tuesday morning, the Denver Airports District Manager John Bauer answered nearly three hours worth of commissioner, board, and community questions, driving home that the FAA rarely allows restrictive, discriminatory policies at airports that receive federal funding.  

The county, the “sponsor” of the airport, is in the process of submitting an Airport Layout Plan to the FAA to expand and upgrade the airport terminal and runway/air side. 

“We will not start on the terminal before the taxiway project starts,” Bauer said in response to an advisory board question. 

He said the FAA is still a little “gun-shy” after plans to shift the runway 80 feet were abandoned in 2018, after the FAA funded part of a master plan and Airport Layout Plan process. 

Now, without statutory assurance that the runway/taxiway separation will be widened, the FAA will not release funding for the terminal renovations before progress starts on the runway.  

That funding will come from two buckets of FAA dollars allocated to the airport: entitlement and discretionary funds. 

Entitlement funds amount to about $2.3 million annually for the airport, dictated by Congress due to the number of passengers and operations there. Discretionary funds, however, can amount to much higher, and the FAA has greater autonomy in handing down those funds.

But to access those dollars, Bauer said, the FAA would like to see a reduction in modifications of standards, or mods, at which the airport currently numbers 85. Mods grant allowances to the standards laid out for an airport’s design group — ADG III in Aspen’s case. 

The most serious in the eyes of the FAA is the current mod that allows the runway/taxiway separation to be 320 feet, which limits aircraft wingspan to 95 feet or less. The standard separation laid out by the FAA is 400 feet to allow up to 118-foot wingspan.

“We now know it’s possible to meet the runway taxiway separation, whether that is shipping the runway to the west, or shipping the taxiway to the east — it can be done,” Bauer said, referencing years of research and conversations with the airport. That expansion would allow the full fleet of planes able to fly into ASG III airports to do so at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. 

Increasing the separation and allowing for planes with greater wingspan at the airport is a point of major concern for many community members. Larger planes, and more planes, could be detrimental to growth and environmental goals, they say.

Valerie Braun is a member of the Airport Advisory Board and raised the concern that even though potentially more efficient planes with wider wingspans appear to be on the horizon, the airport might not see that benefit, as general aviation makes up 87% of flights there. 

“Reducing commercial flights by three or five is not going to have the impact that we’re probably looking for because so much of what happens at the airport is on the GA side,” she said. “The community’s concern is that they’re bigger, the aircraft, with very few people, and so they’re not efficient.”

Bauer did attempt to quell anxiety about extraordinarily large planes coming to Aspen, saying that planes heavier than 200,000 pounds or ASG IV, V or VI-sized aircraft would be constrained by regulations and insurance. 

He addressed the question of whether the airport or the county could put their own rules in place to limit things like plane size, general aviation traffic at peak season, or landing/takeoff activity.

And his answer came back to the same point: that the FAA cannot allow rules that restrict or discriminate access. 

“If you’re talking about local constraints on access, restrictions are things that locals would say: ‘We don’t want this in our community,'” he said. “We hear those concerns. And if they’re somehow able to meld into the project and they fit within the standards — the safety and the access piece — we absolutely take that into account. But we’re a very standards-driven organization.”

As for requiring supplementary training for pilots coming into Aspen, he reiterated that the FAA cannot allow what they call “unjust” discrimination.

The flight standards arm of the FAA is responsible for pilot certification. Airlines may require greater training or certifications for their pilots, but neither the county nor the airport can mandate extra certifications.

Nor can the airport prioritize commercial or general aviation over the other.  

“Air traffic is not sitting out there saying you’re a commercial airplane, and you’re GA, and you’re a commercial, and you’re GA; they’re saying you’re a plane, and you’re a plane, and you’re a plane,” Bauer said. “And I know because of the kind of plane you are and how far I need to have you separate.”

If the airport wanted to fund extra training for every pilot flying into Aspen, that might be another situation, he said. 

For sustainability and climate-change related goals, Bauer said that a question from the advisory board questions prompted some investigating within his organization. 

“We do not believe we have the statutory authority to allow an airport to do those types of incentives for (carbon) offsets. We are actually looking into that further based on this question,” he said. “(An incentive program from the airport) would be completely voluntary right now, and they couldn’t unjustly discriminate against a certain user.”

He also clarified that should the airport pursue privatization – or take on a third party as the airport sponsor – that new sponsor would not be exempted from FAA rules and regulations if they still want FAA funds. Nor does it afford the opportunity to put in noise restrictions or discriminate against certain types of aircraft or limit access to the airport.

Amory Lovins of the citizen group Aspen Fly Right drew a conclusion during public questions that the county should run the fixed base operation and use that revenue stream to supplement lost FAA funding. The county is expected to name its top choice to run the FBO for 30 years from a list of three finalist firms this week.

But Jacque Francis, chair of the Airport Advisory Board, said that even if the county ran the FBO, it would not allow the airport to skirt FAA safety and access standards. She can’t speak for the entirety of the board, just herself. 

Language in the county’s request for proposals also indicates that the county is looking for an FBO operator to take as much responsibility as possible in running the operation. 

“The airline industry is an interesting industry. They don’t often make changes based on one aircraft, one airport. They make them on a global scale,” Bauer said of the choices the county will have to make. “That is a question that you all have to ask yourselves from a planning perspective.”