Future jet choices slim without new runway
In five years, the only currently available regional jet that could fly into Aspen’s airport won’t be able to reach the East Coast and will be forced to fly with far fewer people in the summer because of atmospheric issues.
That was the upshot of a discussion Tuesday with aviation officials and Pitkin County commissioners, who must decide in the next year or so whether to re-align and rebuild Aspen’s runway to accommodate planes as large as Boeing 737s.
“We’ve been waiting for this (study),” board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said.
Tuesday’s discussion was an update to an air service study done in 2014 that looked at what types of planes in the future could fly into Aspen, which can currently only handle aircraft with maximum 95-foot wingspans.
Two years before that, the Federal Aviation Administration refused to approve part of the airport’s master plan, saying that it didn’t want to continue to give it a decades-long special exception for not having enough space to allow so-called Class 3 aircraft, aviation consultant Ryk Dunkelberg said. Class 3 airplanes feature wingspans up to 118 feet.
The FAA told Aspen that if it could “reasonably accommodate” Class 3 airplanes, it must do so, Dunkelberg said. After studying the problem, airport officials discovered that moving the runway 80 feet west and widening it would allow for planes with 118-foot wingspans to land and maneuver around the airport, he said.
The FAA recently issued an environmental assessment for the re-aligned runway and a new terminal, finding that they would cause no significant impacts.
Because the Aspen-area community tends to become jumpy when airport officials start talking about 737s, commissioners wanted an update to the air service study to find out if, in the past four years, other regional jets have come online that might conform to Aspen’s current wingspan parameters.
The short answer Tuesday: not really.
The current commercial jets that service the Aspen airport are called Bombardier CRJ700s. Currently, no American or Canadian airlines have more of those Canadian-manufactured jets on order, and they will begin to reach the end of their lifespans in about 2023, Dunkelberg said.
“I have trouble believing they’ll all be gone in five years,” Commissioner Greg Poschman said.
The only other jet currently available that could fly into Aspen without any runway improvements is known in awkward airplane-speak as the Embraer 175LR-EWT. That jet’s wingspan comes in at just under 95 feet and it can carry about 78 passengers.
However, it can only make Chicago and L.A. if it carries 60 percent of its maximum load, it cannot reach the East Coast at all and must fly with significantly lighter loads in summer months, Dunkelberg said. It would also be about two decibels louder on takeoff and landing than the CRJ700.
A Mitsubishi regional jet with a 98-foot wingspan was not considered in the study because its specifications have not yet been officially certified, he said.
The replacement for the CRJ700 is a regional jet called the Airbus A-210, previously known as the Bombardier CS100. That jet is ideal for serving the Aspen area, Aspen Airport Director John Kinney has said.
It can fly year-round into and out of Aspen fully loaded, and reach Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and cities on the East Coast without requiring a change of planes, Dunkelberg said. The A210 has a 115-foot wingspan, carries between 115 and 120 people and is expected to be a decibel or two quieter than the CRJ700, he said.
“It’s a real good aircraft to operate around here,” Dunkelberg said.
Another solid option, he said, is the French-manufactured Airbus 319-115. That airplane also can fly fully loaded, year-round out of Aspen and feature nonstop service to the East Coast, he said. It has a wingspan of 117 feet and carries 128 people, though it is expected to be two or three decibels louder that the CRJ700, Dunkelberg said.
Finally, there are the much demonized Boeing 737s.
One of only two 737 models that could fly in and out of Aspen fully loaded, year-round and reach the East Coast is the newest 737-7 Max, currently being developed by Boeing, Dunkelberg said. It will have a 117-foot wingspan, carry 138 passengers and is slated to be a decibel or two quieter than the CRJ700, he said.
The second is a specialty 737 jet made by Boeing for a Chinese airline that flew into and out of high-altitude airports, Dunkelberg said. American Airlines purchased some of those jets when the Chinese airline sold them, he said.
Two other 737 models — the 737-700 ERW and the 737-8 Max — could not reach the East Coast, Chicago, Dallas or L.A. while fully loaded in the summer months, he said.
All 737s could fly into and out of Aspen, fully loaded from roughly September through May and reach the East Coast, according to materials included Tuesday in the commissioners meeting packet.
Airlines typically make money when planes are 80 percent loaded, though the Aspen market is more lucrative so that load factor profit is lower, Kinney said.
Commissioners asked Dunkelberg and Kinney to investigate whether it would be possible to bring in one or more of the jets they discussed Tuesday for a sort-of open house.
“There’s so many assumptions,” Commissioner George Newman said. “It would be really good for us in the community to have a reality check.”
Kinney said later Tuesday the larger plane could fly empty into Aspen if special arrangements were made, then volunteers could go up for a lap or two around the area before the plane landed again. Operations at the airport would have to stop while the larger jet flew in and out, he said.
Clapper also said she wants to find out if the FAA has continued to grant other airports in the country modified standards even though it is feasible to change their runway dimensions to accommodate Class 3 aircraft.
Moving and rebuilding the runway is expected to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million, Kinney has said. The FAA would likely pay a majority of that cost. The entire project — with a new terminal — is estimated to cost between $350 million and $400 million. Pitkin County would likely pay a majority of the cost of a new terminal, he has said.