Will Aspen’s economy take off with $15 million runway extension?
November 6, 2009
ASPEN – Pitkin County is seeking nearly $15 million in federal funds for a straightforward proposal to extend the runway at the Aspen airport by 1,000 feet. The implications of the project aren’t quite so clear.County officials and consultants – mindful of the anti-growth mood that sunk a previous, more aggressive runway expansion proposal in 1995 – insist this project will make United Express’ existing service more efficient without triggering growth. They say United Express could fill thousands of additional seats annually on existing flights if it didn’t have to wrestle with occasional weight restrictions. A longer runway would allow United Express’ jets to carry heavier payloads.”Our runway extension is pretty simple in terms of how it’s being viewed: How do you get more people on a single airplane and allow them to get where they need to go?” said Jim Elwood, director of aviation at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.It’s not that simple for some observers. The consulting firm studying the proposal faces community pressure from two radically different directions. A portion of the community believes the number of estimated additional seats resulting from a longer runway is “conservative,” according to Ryk Dunkelberg, a principal in Barnard Dunkelberg & Co., an aviation consulting firm hired by the county. Pitkin County’s community development department, for example, wants to know whether the longer runway will encourage United Express and other potential commercial air carriers to add direct flights from new markets, Dunkelberg said.On the opposite end of the spectrum, other stakeholders question how a longer runway will magically fill seats, Dunkelberg said. Dr. Gordon Gerson, a cardiologist who sits on the county’s Citizens Input Committee for the project, has studied the runway extension as much as any layman but says flatly, “the math has never added up for me,” Gerson said.He hasn’t been shy about expressing his skepticism with county officials and consultants in the input meetings over the last 18 months. “I just get told ‘those are the numbers,'” he said.
So, what problem exists that warrants a $15 million solution? Natural conditions occasionally conspire with the runway length to prevent United Express from filling its jets to capacity.The airport is at an elevation of 7,815 feet. When temperatures climb to 80 degrees and above, United Express must adjust its payload of fuel, passengers and bags in its CRJ700 aircraft so it can take off. Landings aren’t an issue – the existing length of the runway is fine. Weight can also be an issue during winters because of the tremendous amount of luggage that skiers bring.SkyWest, which operates United Express flights, worked with Dunkelberg’s firm to estimate how many seats go unfilled because of weight restrictions. SkyWest said it didn’t offer 9,575 seats for sale between March 1, 2007, and Feb. 28, 2008, because of anticipated weather conditions and resulting weight restrictions.The carrier said it could have realistically expected to sell 71 percent of those seats based on its historic “load factor” in the Aspen market, or the number of available seats that it actually fills. The study concluded that means 6,798 additional seats could have been filled in that one-year time period. That number is expected to grow over time because of increasing service to Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Dunkelberg said.Pitkin County Manager Hilary Fletcher has taken a particular interest in airport issues, and said quality air service is essential for the economic health of Aspen and Snowmass Village.”We’re not helping our economy when our visitors can’t get here,” Fletcher said.In recent years, Fletcher and Elwood have pursued improvements to make the airport attractive to additional carriers and, therefore, more competitive.Frontier started offering its Lynx service between Aspen and Denver starting in April 2008. The presence of a second carrier has increased flights and decreased airfares.Fletcher contends that easing the weight restriction by extending the runway makes the Aspen airport more viable for United Express and potentially new, additional carriers in the future.”The challenge for us right now is that weight restriction. To start up a service here and know you can’t sell every seat makes it a different financial plan,” Fletcher said. “At the end of the day, we want to position this airport to not be the constraint on the air carriers.”
Elwood, Fletcher and Dunkelberg carefully phrased the need for the extension as enhanced capacity rather than growth. It’s a lesson that carries over from 1995.The Aspen Skiing Co. and the business community lobbied that year for an expanded and strengthened runway that could handle Boeing 737 jets. They claimed the 737 was the jet of the future and that the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport would be bypassed by major carriers if it couldn’t accommodate that aircraft.A county-wide vote on the topic spurred a sometimes bitter and divisive campaign. Foes used a logo of a jet covered with a red universal “no” symbol to convey their message, and won by a landslide.The proposed runway extension now being pursued won’t allow larger or heavier aircraft to land at Aspen. “That issue has been put to bed,” Dunkelberg said. The maximum weight for aircraft will remain at 100,000 pounds and the maximum wingspan at 95 feet.The growth debate is a tricky one. Are more fully loaded planes that bring in 6,800 additional passengers per year on existing flights a growth generator? At the urging of the community development department, Dunkelberg firm’s studied a scenario that assumed an extended runway could lead to service from two new markets, particularly during the lucrative ski season. The longer runway allows planes to depart Aspen at a heavier weight. An airline could choose to carry more fuel rather than carry more passengers, Dunkelberg said. That way, it could provide direct service to Aspen from a greater distance, such as Atlanta, he said.That clearly represents growth, but the study concluded it wouldn’t be enough growth to require construction of additional tourist accommodations. Even so, is it growth that county residents would now find acceptable, nearly 15 years after heartily defeating a proposal to promote growth through greater air service capacity?
Gerson said the runway extension represents growth to him, but a physical growth rather than an increase in tourism. The county is contemplating a runway addition 1,000 feet long and 100 feet wide or 100,000 square feet of asphalt. The extension would be to the south of the existing runway. A parallel taxi way would be constructed.He doesn’t believe the project is worth $15 million, even if the federal government would cover 95 percent of the cost. Among Gerson’s many questions: How many flights are actually affected by weight restrictions? He figures it is a handful during midday, primarily in July and August.How many of those empty seats could actually be filled if there weren’t weight restrictions? In other words, United Express can’t sell a withheld seat if the demand doesn’t exist. “I’m on jets that are half-empty anyway,” he said.He also questions if there is truly a problem when travelers are obviously finding a way to get to Aspen-Snowmass. The weight restrictions are applied to jet takeoffs, not landings. Travelers who fly here don’t disappear into a black hole if United Express cannot sell a few seats because of restrictions, Gerson said. If a few seats are withheld from midday summer flights, passengers will be routed to flights that otherwise would be less full, he reasoned. The concept that the weight restrictions lead to people not flying doesn’t make sense to him.Dunkelberg has attended all the Citizen Input Committee meetings and is well aware of Gerson’s skepticism. “The only response to that is we didn’t make these numbers up,” he said.Elwood credited SkyWest with spending significant time on the study and providing more data than is usually offered by a carrier in the competitive airline industry.The information supplied by SkyWest said a 1,000-foot runway extension will allow the carrier to gain up to 11 passengers on affected summer flights from Aspen to Denver as well as seven passengers on direct flights to Chicago in summers and five passengers on Chicago flights in winter.
Gerson acknowledges that his criticism of the project could be viewed as the concerns of someone with the airport in his backyard. He and his family live in the West Buttermilk subdivision, in the hills above the airport. Noise from the airport affects his home and those of his neighbors, but Gerson says “I live by an airport. I expect some noise.”An environmental assessment on the project will examine how the runway extension could affect noise levels.A greater concern for Gerson and his neighbors is their water supply. Their well is south of the existing runway and must be relocated to accommodate the expansion. Gerson is concerned about maintaining a viable water supply, maintaining water quality, and determining who covers the cost of the relocation. Elwood and Dunkelberg told the county commissioners on Oct. 6 that the West Buttermilk well issue will be addressed by the county as part of the project.Despite his personal concerns, Gerson’s primary focus is on the big picture. He sees blemishes where county officials see benefits. He believes it is indisputable that a project that will benefit United Express will harm Frontier.Frontier flies fuel-efficient turbo-prop aircraft between Aspen and Denver and doesn’t need a longer runway. Its smaller Q400 planes don’t face the weight restriction dilemma of United Express’s jets.But Fletcher said the extension will enhance rather than choke competition among commercial carriers.”We’ve worked really diligently to make improvements to make ourselves an attractive, competitive airport so we can invite carriers in here,” she said.Gerson is also at odds with the policy makers over environmental impacts. Extending the runway, he said, rewards United Express for operating less fuel-efficient jets while providing no reward to Frontier for using efficient aircraft. For a community concerned about its carbon footprint, he feels that is wrong.”When we’re talking about what’s best for our valley, our common themes are (slow) growth and (being) environmentally friendly,” Gerson said.Elwood countered that commercial air travel is an effective tool for lowering greenhouse gas emissions when planes are filled to capacity. Providing more competitively-priced seats to the Aspen airport on existing flights reduces the number of travelers flying to Eagle County Regional Airport or Denver International Airport and driving to Aspen.
Pitkin County residents will have the opportunity to learn more about the runway extension in public meetings and a county commissioner public hearing that will be held after the environmental assessment of the project is complete. Those meetings will likely come early next year.Gerson is convinced that if people take the time to study the project, there will be an “uproar.””It’d be one thing if that runway extension could guarantee economic prosperity for the valley, but it’s a hard sell for me,” he said.The FAA and Colorado Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division view the project as viable. The runway expansion fits two top priorities for FAA funding, according to Travis Vallin, director of CDOT’s Aeronautics Division. It enhances safety and it provides a capacity improvement at one of 3,400 facilities in the national airport system.The FAA typically grants between $60 million and $100 million in discretionary grants to Colorado airports every year for capital improvement projects, Vallin said. Although Pitkin County hasn’t applied yet, the project is on the FAA’s map. The federal agency works on a draft budget three to five years ahead, and Aspen’s runway extension is in that draft budget, Vallin said.The county has essentially pursued the runway extension since it completed its last airport master plan in 2004. The commissioners hold regular work sessions on the airport, and it appears they will endorse the project and pursue funding.Commissioner Michael Owsley said he still has questions about the project, but he supported more detailed study. His top concern is that the environmental assessment is transparent, so Pitkin County residents get informed about the project and be heard.The question of whether the $15 million investment will really produce bang for the buck is something for the FAA to decide in its cost-benefit analysis, he said.His greater concern is the possibility that the project is a growth generator – an issue he hasn’t resolved yet. “That’s always the problem with any infrastructure improvement,” he said. Will higher capacity at the airport trigger a need for more tourist beds? And if so, will that just spur more improvements at the airport? It can develop into a vicious cycle, Owsley said.For now, Owsley doesn’t see many growth concerns. He believes the recession has snuffed the potential for growth. Now it’s just a matter of rebuilding economic health.In the long term, it’s difficult to predict how the extension will affect Aspen-Snowmass, if at all, he said. He noted that the decision by county residents to reject airport improvements to accommodate 737 jets in 1995 turned was wise given that the aircraft fell out of favor.”It turned out to be very prescient,” Owsley firstname.lastname@example.org