Taking the Aspen/Pitkin County airport tour before it opens again Wednesday | AspenTimes.com

Taking the Aspen/Pitkin County airport tour before it opens again Wednesday

Fire equipment being tested at Aspen Airport during Spring 2023 closure.
Julie Bielenberg/The Aspen Times

Days before the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport was set to re-open, after the May 10-24 closure for now-annual airfield pavement maintenance, a small tour group was driven around the tarmac and surrounding airport area for an update on the current improvements, hopes, and needs for the future. 

The airport is perhaps antiquated in terms of the Roaring Fork Valley’s modernday desires and updated technology, at least according to some. The airport opened in 1946 with a gravel runway and a log cabin for a terminal. Since the beginning, the airport has catered to a jet-set clientele and, of course, numerous locals with their private planes. 

Today, 83% of the planes that land and take off at the airport are private, and 17% of the traffic is commercial service.

Private planes parked at Aspen’s airport.
Julie Bielenberg/The Aspen Times

The FAA regulates the airport, including everything from the control tower to management of fire response. 

The tour included Pitkin Country and airport officials’ aspirations of what would make the airport better: a brand-new expanded terminal, more space for general aviation (i.e., private) jet craft, and additional hangers.

The need for a new taxi way is causing “cannibalism” among other operations of the airport explained Dan Bartholomew, the airport director. 

“Right now, it’s like a Tetris game trying to get private planes parked and in out and out of our big festivals like Food & Wine, Snowmass Aspen Jazz, the Fourth of July and more,” he said.

“We have wingtips overlaying one another,” he said, “and we have other people sign very expensive disclosures stating they will not move their private plane during extremely busy times because we park them a few rows deep, and it would be a huge effort on behalf of many people to move the planes around.”

In the aging control tower, the employees can’t even see the entire runway with a direct line of site. It’s still on a septic system, although there are plans to convert this to city sewage.

Aspen/Pitkin County Airport’s control tower built in the 1970s.
Julie Bielenberg/The Aspen Times

There’s the overcrowded single hanger. Many general aviation planes will drop off their passengers and then, since in need of a hanger, might fly to Rifle, Eagle, or Centennial to park the planes. 

Charles Cunniffe, a long-time architect in Aspen and pilot himself, said, “Additional hangers might also mitigate airport noise.”

Expanded aircraft parking is needed for locals, officials said.  

Bartholomew said there are currently 60 spots, which have electricity to heat planes and help from fuel freezing, and the waitlist is that many, as well. 

Runway woes aren’t going away.

The tour showcased the repaved runway. It’s reaching its lifespan, and Bartholomew said, “At this point in time, we are going to have to close every year for two weeks to repair the asphalt.”

There is also the issue with Owl Creek, which runs through the airport property.

He said, “We are getting cracks in the pavement and don’t know why this is happening. The road base was laid over boulders, and we know boulders like to migrate to the surface.” 

And other problems — the need for more terminals, more concessions, more space for everything — needs to be negotiated between the FAA and the county, according to airport officials.  

Snow removal equipment at the Aspen airport.
Julie Bielenberg/The Aspen Times

A local on the tour said she heard rumors that there were people who would just saunter over to the general aviation hangar in the late ’70s and hitchhike a flight. While everyone on the tour chuckled, Cunniffe mentioned he had done this himself.

Bartholomew said it wouldn’t be as easy to do nowadays with new security measures — but it’s not entirely out of the question, either.