Runway expansion ready for takeoff? | AspenTimes.com

Runway expansion ready for takeoff?

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Airport officials, tourism promoters and aviation enthusiasts are once again proposing to expand the runway at Sardy Field.

The latest proposal marks the beginning of a yearlong public process to identify shortcomings at the Pitkin County airport and develop a plan for its future development. A team of consultants and a citizen task force are looking at everything from runway length to terminal redevelopment to a proposal to build special hangers for corporate executives and their jets.

They met yesterday to discuss forecasting models that predict growth in future use and consider a proposal to extend the runway by as much as 1,000 feet.

Runway expansion has proven controversial in the past. In 1995, Pitkin County voter came out overwhelmingly against a proposal to widen and lengthen the runway to accommodate Boeing 737 jets.

The runway actually is currently able to accommodate the relatively small, medium-range 737s; an older model took off about 1 p.m. yesterday, perhaps in connection with the Forstmann Little conference of elite decision-makers in government, business and communications.

This time, however, the question isn’t about widening the runway to accommodate major airlines and 737s. Instead, it’s about lengthening the runway to make takeoffs possible for commercial airliners, known as “regional jets,” in the summer. Hotter weather forces pilots to accelerate to higher speeds before taking off, in order to get the necessary lift under the wings.

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“When it’s clear and sunny out, that’s a weather problem for us. It can be too hot to take off,” said a member of the task force from the airline industry.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison with the airlines, said a longer runway would allow the current class of jets used by United Express to take off with more people and baggage during the summer months. He also pointed out that a longer runway is needed to accommodate future classes of 90- to 100-passenger regional jets that will eventually replace the British Aerospace BAe-146 used by United Express. A British aerospace firm stopped producing the BAe-146 last year.

Tomcich has been telling local officials and business leaders for months that Aspen’s best hope for viable air service in the future lies with such regional jets and a longer runway that allows carriers to schedule flights directly from Dallas, Chicago and other cities year-round.

Tomcich said it was highly unlikely that a longer runway would lead to regular flights of 737s in and out of Aspen. He said the distance between the runway, the taxiway and the parking slots for aircraft limit wingspans to 95 feet for planes flying in and out of Sardy Field on a regular basis. Also, the runway here is designed to handle planes of no more than 100,000 pounds when fully loaded.

According to a Boeing Web site, the 737-300 model, which carries between 128 and 149 passengers, would meet the 95-foot wingspan limit with a wingspan of 94 feet, 9 inches. The plane’s maximum takeoff weight is 138,500 pounds.

The smaller 737-200, with a wingspan of 93 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 115,000 pounds, has been out of production since 1988. But it is the best-selling model in the 737 family, and many are still flying, according to the Boeing Web site.

Asked what would happen if the runway isn’t extended, Tomcich replied, “Then we’re stuck with what we’ve got ? we’ll probably never have any summer service except to Phoenix and Denver,” he said.

The proposal floated yesterday would extend the runway at its Aspen end. The extension would be limited to takeoffs only, with planes pointed down the runway toward Woody Creek, because the terrain at the Aspen end is not suitable for aircraft trying to climb out of the valley, consultant Mark McFarland told the citizens committee.

Suzanne Konchan, the former Pitkin County manager who is under contract to manage the planning process for the county, said it’s possible that the runway will not need to be extended the maximum 1,000 feet.

“A thousand feet is the longest the extension would be,” Konchan said. “We may find out when the experts look more closely at it that the runway only needs to be extended 500 or 800 feet. We started with 1,000 feet because we didn’t want any surprises.”

The meeting also touched on some of the deficiencies at the existing terminal, which include a gate area that’s too small, inadequate security accommodations, sub par baggage-handling areas and a building that was designed for propeller planes, not jets.

Work on the plan continues at 9 a.m. today at the county health and human services building next to Aspen Valley Hospital.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]

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