Future of Aspen airport begins to take flight
The size and shape of Aspen’s new airport took a major step forward Thursday night.
After 10 months of looking at the proposed airport expansion, representatives of the 49 Aspen-area residents who took part in the analysis presented their findings to the main committee that will make final recommendations on the project to the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners.
“This is an emotional topic in our community,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock told the crowd gathered Thursday at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center. “It has been for a lot of decades.”
Based on the recommendations presented Thursday, the new Aspen-Pitkin County Airport — which is at least five years from fruition — will feature a wider runway able to accommodate planes as large as the smallest 737s now in the air. The new 75,000- to 90,000-square-foot terminal building will feature eight gates to begin with, jet bridges with a view that could be open-air, and professionally laid-out facilities that maximize efficiency and traffic flow.
Finally, the proposed new airport will fit seamlessly into the upper Roaring Fork Valley’s transportation system, and possibly be a regional hub, with improved public bus service and room for private cars, taxis, ride-share vehicles, bicycles and whatever other modes of moving people might become popular.
Now, it falls to the 26-member Vision Committee — headed by former Aspen Mayor John Bennett — to study the recommendations and come up with a plan for county commissioners, which will likely be finalized in February, said John Kinney, Aspen airport director. After that, the five-member board of commissioners will make the final decision.
Bennett began Thursday’s meeting noting that it marked a significant milestone in the process — sponsored and facilitated by Pitkin County administrators — to create a new community airport.
The three subcommittees, which began meeting in February, looked at the runway expansion issue, the terminal building and airport-related transportation issues. Members of each committee presented majority and minority reports Thursday to the Vision Committee.
The most historic and controversial recommendation came from the runway committee, which voted to recommend reconfiguring the runway to allow so-called “Group 3” airplanes with wingspans of up to 118 feet — which includes 737s — to land in Aspen. Currently, the airport can only accommodate airplanes with up to 95-foot wingspans.
The mention of 737s conjures one of Aspen’s darkest boogeymen, and the mid-1990s fight led by counterculture writer and longtime Woody Creek resident, Hunter S. Thompson, that culminated in a decisive community vote denying the airport’s expansion. Nearly a quarter-century later, however, it’s the likely decline of Aspen’s modern air service that prompted a change of heart, at least among some community members.
“The uncertainty of doing nothing is more consequential than the possible introduction of (larger) aircraft,” said Bill Tomcich, a longtime area tourism hand and a member of the runway committee.
The 76-seat jets that now fly into Aspen — known as CRJ-700s — were last built in 2011 and are “an absolute certainty” to be retired in the next 10 to 20 years, he said. Their replacements will have wingspans larger than 95 feet, though they also will be quieter and more fuel-efficient, according to Tomcich, airport officials and county administrators.
That’s why, Tomcich said, they recommended making the airport Group 3 aircraft-compatible, which will require moving the runway 80 feet west of its current location and widening it from 100 feet to 150 feet to accommodate the larger wingspans.
The subcommittee did not recommend a specific type of aircraft for Aspen’s proposed new airport — that is up to the airlines — but both Tomcich and Chris Bendon, another committee member who spoke Thursday, said 737s are “highly unlikely” to become the dominant carrier for Aspen.
They’re too large, for one, and airlines can’t sell that many seats to Aspen year-round, Tomcich said. In fact, only the smallest version of the 737 — known as the 700 — could land here, he said. Airport consultants have said there’s “no way” the next two larger versions — the 800 and 900 — could operate in Aspen based on their necessary specs.
That only leaves the 737 Max 7, the smallest of Boeing’s controversial new version of the plane, which is unlikely to ever be built because the company has received few orders for it, Tomcich said.
“I don’t believe today that it represents a realistic threat of being a dominant aircraft here,” he said.
Beyond the runway, the committee also urged that total emissions from the airport be reduced by 30% by 2030.
Phil Holstein, a longtime Woody Creek Caucus member, presented the subcommittee’s minority report and said he agreed with most of his colleagues’ recommendations, except one. He said he did not agree that immediately making the airport compatible with Group 3 aircraft was a good idea.
“I think the uniqueness of Aspen is one of the major reasons for our economic vitality,” Holstein said. “We are not Anywhere, USA. I am concerned we are beginning to push the envelope of that uniqueness and put that uniqueness in jeopardy.”
He said he worried about what might happen if three or four large airplanes disgorged 300 to 400 people at once.
“We’re not L.A.” Holstein said. “I don’t want a facility that can accommodate that.”
As for the terminal, the main decision was the number of gates, said Rich Burkley, an Aspen Skiing Co. vice president and the member of the terminal committee who spoke Thursday. The subcommittee settled on eight — one more than the current number — with the possibility of more built into any design to account for the future, he said.
Jay Hughes, who spoke for the minority, said seven gates would better serve the community.
The jet bridges were recommended because of safety and access issues, though committee members wanted to preserve the views of the area when people deplane, Burkley said. Hence the idea for roofless or open-air jetways, he said.
“The terminal is not acceptable for travelers or employees, so it needs to be changed,” Burkley said.
Finally, the airport’s transportation niche needs improvement, said Barry Vaughan, a member of that subcommittee who spoke Thursday. For one thing, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses are “dramatically under-utilized” at the airport, he said. Most people who get off at the airport bus stop work at the facility or are headed for the Aspen Business Center.
Improving the walk from the bus stop to the terminal will be key in improving that service, said Jean Dodd, who also spoke Thursday.
That subcommittee also recommended airport-specific buses with added luggage storage, building a new “multi-modal transportation facility” at the airport and providing facilities that are better protected from the weather, they said.
Aspen’s current airport facility opened in 1976 as a 17,500-square-foot building, which was redeveloped in 1986-87 and is currently a hodgepodge of about 47,000 square feet. It doesn’t accommodate current numbers of travelers, employees or luggage, officials have said.
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