Pitkin County commissioners OK Aspen airport plan to move forward

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
A layout plan for Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, approved by county commissioners Wednesday, calls for a new terminal and a widened and reconfigured runway. It still awaits approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which also would perform an environmental assessment to see if the project passes muster.

Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday unanimously approved an airport layout plan for the construction of a new terminal of up to 80,000 square feet and a runway upgrade to accommodate larger aircraft that potentially would include 737s.

The next step is for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the plan and subsequently begin an environmental assessment that could take up to two years. The environmental assessment would be funded through federal grants.

“We cannot survive as a community that doesn’t have adequate commercial airport service,” said Commissioner Patti Clapper. “We just cannot. I think we really need to move forward, and I count on the community to be involved.”

Other commissioners urged residents to be part of ongoing discussions about the airport’s future starting today, when a public-input meeting will be held at 4:30 at the Limelight Hotel.

The commissioners’ approval of the layout plan, however, does not mean it’s a done deal — even with the FAA’s pending approval — in terms of building the new terminal and widening and reconfiguring the runway. County Manager Jon Peacock noted that the layout plan “is a space reservation. It identifies future intended uses for airport space. It is not approval for those projects; it is not design for those projects. … It is a space reservation.”

The commissioners’ approval was the latest development in a complex series of airport discussions that began in 2011. And last week, the county announced that it would not be moving forward on plans for a second fixed-based operator, an underground parking garage or a new taxiway on the airport’s west side because of a shortage of federal funding.

Figures released at the meeting by J.D. Ingram of Denver-based planning and design firm Jviation, put the total cost of the terminal, the runway widening and configuration, and new above-ground parking at $145.9 million.

Ingram and Peacock expressed confidence that the FAA will pay for a majority of that cost, estimated at 90 percent, because other than the new parking area, wherever that might be, the FAA would deem the other projects high priorities.

The airport currently has enough parking for roughly 650 vehicles. The new parking would push that figure over 1,000.

A new runway, new aircraft

The chief motivation for upgrading the airport is to allow larger aircraft to serve Sardy Field due to the airline industry’s phasing out of CRJ700s, which currently comprise 95 percent of the airport’s commercial traffic.

The FAA has set the airport’s wingspan limits to 95 feet, which the CRJ700s, with a wingspan of 76 feet and 3 inches, meet. The CRJ700s hold up to 70 passengers and can fly nonstop to Aspen from major hub airports such as those in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles.

But the fleet is projected to be retired by 2025, giving the county a sense of urgency to move the improvement project forward. That’s because a number of regional jet aircraft are in the manufacturing pipeline that have wingspans too large for the Aspen airport. Improving the runway by widening it 50 feet and shifting its center line 80 feet to the west would allow wingspans of up to 118 feet, according to FAA guidelines. A small stretch of Owl Creek Road, which is located within a county right of way, also would have to be moved to accommodate the runway.

Ingram said without an improved runway, commercial air service to Aspen “would evaporate as it currently is today,” meaning only commuter turbo props would be able to fly into Aspen from Denver.

“The markets you are served by Chicago, Los Angeles, all of those markets would have to commute through Denver,” he said.

The new generation of aircraft would have “lower emissions, less noise, less fuel burn,” Ingram said. They also would be able to fly to Aspen from as far away as the East Coast, he said.

Commissioners also asked about the potential for 737s. It’s possible they could fly into Aspen, officials responded, but that would be the airline’s call. United Airlines already has said it can’t fly them to Aspen even with an improved runway, airport Direct John Kinney said.

Phil Holstein, president of the Woody Creek Caucus, told commissioners that such planes as 737s landing in Aspen would impact the quality of life for nearby residents.

“It will blow those people in West Buttermilk right out of their houses,” he said.

Holstein has been involved with public discussions about the airport for years. He told commissioners “there are hundreds of families in this valley that are impacted by the airport. The airport has impacts primarily in relation to noise and pollution.”

But, he said, he understands why the airport improvements are necessary, but they will come at a cost.

“If we accept this kind of expansion in this valley to accommodate a new generation of commercial airplanes, that is a rational position,” he said. “At least we should limit the access to the airport to very heavy lift, large airplanes that should not be flying into here. I would encourage you to negotiate with the FAA to accomplish that because the impacts are going to be significant.”

But because the Aspen airport is for public use, the FAA could not outlaw 737s or other large aircraft if the airlines determined they were able to negotiate the topography and weather that can make flying here challenging.

“If (the aircraft) meet the performance applications and come within the wingspan, anybody can come to the airport,” Ingram said.