The airport is a federally obligated facility. Here’s what that means for ASE

Aircraft parked at the Aspen airport.
FIle photo

As the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport and airport sponsor Pitkin County work through the submittal of an updated Airport Layout Plan, the desire for local control and the need to stay in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards frequently clash.

At the Thursday meeting of the Airport Advisory Board, Airport Director Dan Bartholomew discussed how grant assurances, also known as obligations, keep airports beholden to the FAA and the money invested by the federal government.

And separating the airport from the FAA would cost a fortune.

Federal funding means federal obligation, which means a federally-obligated facility, he explained. Although the airport and the airport sponsor are “stewards” of the airport, it is still federally-obligated. And to protect their investment, the FAA came up with grant assurances. 

“(Grant assurances are the result of) over 75 years of shenanigans in many ways from different facilities that have tried to get away with certain things,” Bartholomew said. “So they built in grant assurances to protect themselves in the public interest to make sure these don’t happen again. It really makes sure there’s equity between all users of an airport facility, all tenants, and then makes sure we maintain a certain degree of compliance here.”

“Shenanigans” like taking revenue earned within the airport to fund a project separate from the airport, failing to maintain infrastructure repairs funded by FAA dollars, or artificially limiting growth are all addressed in the administration’s 39 grant assurance obligations

They cover a range of airport-related topics, but Bartholomew highlighted nine as particularly relevant to Aspen:

#2, Responsibility and Authority of the Sponsor

#19, Operation and Maintenance

#22, Economic Non-Discrimination

#24, Fee and Rental Structure

#25, Airport Revenues

#27, Use by Government Aircraft

#29, Airport Layout Plans

#31, Disposal of Land

#39, Competitive Access

As the FAA made clear in a meeting with the county commissioners and airport advisory board members in April, the FAA prioritizes safety and access above all else. The objective of the obligations focuses on that. 

Whenever the county accepts a grant from the FAA, the commissioners sign grant assurances to receive the funding. Those legally-binding contracts last for 20 years, so that 20-year clock starts with each grant accepted by the county. 

If the county decided it wanted to cut ties with the FAA, it could do so at any time. But it would have to buy its way out of all unexpired contracts, going back 20 years from now.

Bartholomew couldn’t even speculate how much money that would cost the county, but it would be a lot. And, property obligations do not have a sunset date. The county would have to buy the land on which the airport sits from the FAA at a fair market rate. 

Property valuations in Pitkin County averaged an 80% jump in this year’s cycle, with some property jumping in value as high as 200%. 

One of the biggest tension points in airport-related discussions is growth. Submission of an Airport Layout Plan (ALP) requires a fleet mix forecast, a document that predicts things like enplanements, operations, and aircraft that will fly into the airport. 

The county commissioners narrowly passed the fleet mix forecast for submission to the FAA in July after months of meetings and hours-long discussions about a predicted 1.3% annual growth rate for commercial enplanements. Commercial flights account for 17% of the airport’s operations, compared to general aviation’s, or private planes’, 83%.

A complete ALP is projected to be ready for submission in fall 2024. With a completed ALP, the airport will be eligible for FAA discretionary funds to finance an air- and land-side renovation project. According to an airport budget presentation that happened after the grant assurance discussion, that project is expected to cost $570 million. 

The prospect of growth still prompts alarm amongst most airport-affiliated groups. And going through the grant assurances at the meeting, some members of the advisory board expressed worry that the language prohibited the limitation of growth.

“We don’t have to promote growth,” Bartholomew answered. “We just can’t artificially limit it.”

And, according to him, the only airports that actually “separate” from the FAA are airports that are closing. The Santa Monica Airport is one such facility, according to board member Barry Vaughn. 

The advisory board had asked airport staff to bring a presentation of FAA grant assurances to them, so that they might better understand the airport and the county’s obligation to the FAA.


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