Aspen Princess: Updates and changes to Aspen airport just part of growing up

Alison Berkley Margo
The Aspen Princess

I remember the first time I flew into Aspen as an adult, my nose pressed against the glass as I wondered if a commercial plane was meant to tilt at such a steep angle.

I startled as the wheels came down when we were still thousands of feet in the air, panic rising in my gut. This wasn’t some kind of mistake on the pilot’s part, was it? Then we made our steep descent, screeching to a halt on the ground just minutes later. My stomach roiled as the entire flight from Denver had been riddled with turbulence so severe a few people had actually moaned or even screamed a little when the plane jerked violently somewhere over the Rocky Mountains.

As a young child, I can remember having to take a Greyhound bus from Denver to Aspen when all the flights were canceled because of snow. Ground travel wasn’t much better. This was before the Eisenhower Tunnel was completed and my mom had a terrible fear of heights. I remember when she struggled with the trip over Loveland Pass, pressing her forehead against the seat in front of her for extended periods as the chains on the bus tires clanked loudly, almost like a train. The trip seemed endless as we ascended slowly through the darkness, snow flying at the windshield in a dizzying kaleidoscope, spinning all around us.

My family loved to ski, and Colorado felt like heaven to us, coming from New England. The blue skies, the soft snow, the arid, pleasant climate were a welcome respite from skiing on sheets of ice so solid they turned blue, from the wind chill factor and the damp cold that made your teeth chatter so hard that the best part of the day was going into the lodge. We’d slurp hot chocolate or sink our teeth into those fat burgers they served at Stratton’s base lodge, the thick, juicy patties that would soak the bun with grease.

It’s no surprise that the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is due for a facelift. The only type of jet that is actually able to fly in here is about to meet its expiration date. The runway, which has seen its share of incidents (remember when that plane slid right off and into the grass?), and the terminal is clearly no longer adequate for the number of visitors who come through and often get stuck when their flights are delayed. Am I the only one who has had set up camp on the floor because there wasn’t a single place to sit in the entire airport?

I understand the redevelopment of the airport is a controversial issue, but why?

Don’t get me wrong, I love that Aspenites take painstaking measures to protect our town from ugly development. I have seen what happens in other resort towns when those battles aren’t fought. I prefer some healthy debate and appreciate the perspective of people who are wary of change and growth.

But whether you like it or not, change is coming. Why not prepare, adapt and welcome it?

Listen, I get it. I was not a big fan of the Aspen Art Museum when it was first completed. I thought it was obtuse and out of place. I even came to the far-flung conclusion that Shigeru Ban came up with this outrageous design — which I likened to a fish tank in an Easter basket — to make some sort of statement, a parody of entitlement. I was a little grossed out by the amount of money that had gone into something as superfluous as a modern art museum, (not to mention the shocking salary received by the executive director) when we had other more serious issues that weren’t being addressed. To this day, I hold the AAM as a standard for the incredible fundraising this community is capable of. In my mind, there is no excuse for lack of funding for things like mental health and substance abuse if we can raise $65 million for an art museum.

I eventually did a complete 180 on the AAM. The first time I set foot inside the building I understood what a masterpiece it was. I visited the exhibit on Shigeru Ban and learned about his work and overall vision. It gave me the context I was lacking to understand the building’s design and to appreciate what a gem it was. I understood the free admission was a gift for the community that would be enjoyed for years to come. I have visited many times since and love bringing my young son there.

In other words, I was no longer ignorant.

I’m not sure we have much of a choice when it comes to adapting to the evolution of the aviation industry, protecting the safety of air travel passengers, providing ourselves and our guests with better air service, more comfortable airplanes, and a facility that can accommodate its swelling population be it on the wider runway or in a nicer, newer terminal.

Naysayers are afraid of bigger jets, increased noise, an impersonal airport, growth, development, more people and, of course, change. Yet our county commissioners are devoted enough to allow for the formation of a public committee that virtually anyone can participate in. The FAA was horrified by this — why complicate matters with public input?

Because we are a community who cares deeply about our town and making sure that the changes we make are in our best interest. From what I understand of this highly complicated process, a new runway will allow for bigger aircraft. But these newer planes will be greener, quieter and more efficient. A new terminal, that will be carefully designed to reflect the character of our town, will be an undeniable improvement over what we have now.

Believe me, I know it’s hard to watch your baby grow up. All you can do is offer guidance and do your best.

The Princess is getting her turkey brine ready. Email your love to