Newer, larger aircraft on the horizon for Aspen airport | AspenTimes.com

Newer, larger aircraft on the horizon for Aspen airport

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

As the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport eyes the future with continued attention to air-service improvements and plans for a new commercial terminal, it still isn't clear which aircraft can provide commercial service.

At Tuesday's county commissioners work session, the airport's aviation director, Jim Elwood, presented the first of three phases concerning the Future Air Service Planning Study.

Joseph Pickering, an air-service consultant from Mead & Hunt, and Sam Cherry, of Bombardier Aircraft Manufacturing, joined him.

One thing is certain: There will be changes coming to the Aspen airport, or at least to the types of aircraft that fly into the airport, said all three speakers. The changes are still several years away, but as the current aircraft that fly into Aspen slowly are taken out of use from age issues, new aircraft will have to take their place.

There are currently two commercial aircrafts capable of operating at the airport: the Q400 Turboprop and the Canadair Regional Jet 700. Of those two, the CRJ-700 is the only commercial aircraft accessing Aspen by American, Delta and United airlines.

The Aspen airport has specific operational requirements concerning weight restrictions and flight curfews. Aspen's elevation and weather require certain performance specifications from airplanes, and the population is sensitive about the crowds and noise impacts that larger jets could bring.

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The CRJ-700 replaced the retired 50-seat RJ fleet that used to serve Aspen. The CRJ-700 came into use from 2001 to 2011. The aircraft has an estimated 15- to 17-year lifespan, with the first wave of retirements scheduled to begin in 2018. It's estimated that half the U.S. fleet of CRJ-700s will be retired by 2021.

"Every fleet type goes away," Elwood said. "The CRJ-700 will also go away."

The next generation of regional jet technology points to larger aircraft with improved efficiencies that cost less to use. One example of a new, potential aircraft is the CS-100 developed by Bombardier, with a seating capacity in the rang of 100 to 149.

Some of the improvements on the CS-100 include state-of-the-art winglets or blended wings that improve fuel efficiency and climb gradient, quieter engines that have a lower carbon footprint and improved range and comfort.

The next generation of new aircraft also will have a longer wingspan than the current 95-foot restriction in place at the airport, a trend that has been in place for the past decade. Longer and lighter wingspans have proven to give aircraft a stronger thrust-to-weight ratio and lower lift-induced drag, which both increase fuel efficiency.

The Federal Aviation Administration, using a formula that takes into account the runway taxi center line, existing FAA standards and runway separation, set the current 95-foot wingspan restriction at the Aspen airport.

"Either the formula needs to change to accommodate newer aircraft with longer wingspans, or we need to explore some other ways to make sure an equivalent level of safety exists," Elwood said. "That formula the FAA uses is to make sure an aircraft using the runway and an aircraft using the taxiway somehow don't find each other."

If the airport eventually does bring in larger-capacity aircraft, there will be a trickle-down effect.

"The existing terminal has serious challenges, regardless of a change in aircraft," Elwood said. "It's mostly 30 to 40 years old. We've got to deal with that subject somewhere along the line. Ultimately, we're going to have to seriously look at how our commercial terminal operates."

Elwood and his staff will work on Phase II, which they hope to have ready to present to the commissioners in April, as well as potentially gather public comment and address any concerns brought to them from the commissioners.

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com

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