Answers about the future of the Aspen airport
After months of study and community outreach about the future of commercial air service at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the culmination of the Future Air Service Study is on the horizon. I’d like to share some answers to the most frequently asked questions we received during our public-outreach effort.
Q: Why is the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport considering making changes to allow larger commercial aircraft?
A: The Air Service Study found that future commercial aircraft capable of serving the airport in Aspen will be larger and have wider wingspans than aircraft now allowed to operate here. The CRJ700 now provides 95 percent of our commercial jet service but is being retired within the next 10 years. All commercial regional jets being designed to replace the CRJ700 have wider wingspans and are larger than aircraft now operating here.
If this community wants commercial service at a similar level to that offered today, we will need to increase the distance between our taxiway and runway to accommodate larger wingspans.
Q: Can’t the Federal Aviation Administration give us a new modification of safety standard?
A: We have a good working relationship with the FAA and have been allowed to operate safely with a modification of standards for many years. The FAA is reducing the number of modifications it issues for airports like ours and is requiring us to meet its full safety standards unless we can show that it is physically impossible for us to do so. After analyzing 18 different airport layout plans, we now know that we can, and must, meet FAA safety standards if we want to accommodate future commercial aircraft.
Q: Are bigger jets going to be noisier or have a greater impact on air quality than the CRJ700 and Q400 that operate here now?
A: Larger wingspans and new jet engines are designed to improve efficiency, and significant strides have been made to reduce noise. On a per-passenger basis, we expect to see less fuel burn. Both noise and air-quality impacts will be important factors studied in the subsequent environmental assessment.
Q: Will accommodating larger aircraft spell massive growth in air traffic here?
A: Unlikely, given what we know today. Growth and congestion at our airport are limited by two key factors: physical apron space to move and manage aircraft on the ground and limited airspace in the mountains that surround us. Forecast demand will be studied in the environmental assessment, but no matter what the demand, our physical and environmental limitations will be factors in curbing excessive growth.
Q: If we make the recommended runway improvements, will 737s ever be able to land here?
A: We don’t know. Our mountainous terrain and altitude have historically limited the types of aircraft capable of operating here. Aircraft with wingspans up to 118 feet will be allowed to use the runway, but whether this size of aircraft can meet stringent air-carrier safety standards to operate here remains to be seen. This will be studied in the environmental assessment.
Q: Will runway changes increase the number of flights that land from the Aspen end of the runway?
A: No. While the majority of landings occur from the north (Shale Bluffs) end of the runway, sometimes pilots opt to land from the south because of stiff tailwinds. Pilots will continue to make the safest choice for landing despite changes to the runway.
Q: Why must we accommodate a second fixed-base operator on the west side of the airport?
A: When the airport receives federal grants, it must agree to FAA grant assurances. We are required to provide an equal opportunity for other fixed-base operators to conduct business at the airport if there is interest and available space on the airport to do so.
Q: When will the Board of County Commissioners consider a new airport layout plan? If it’s approved, how quickly would construction begin?
A: The Board of County Commissioners will consider the new airport layout plan Dec. 16. If the plan is approved, an environmental assessment will likely begin next summer and continue for 18 to 24 months. No development can occur at our airport until this rigorous and thorough environmental assessment is conducted. It is during the environmental assessment that we as a community can seriously consider how development at the airport aligns with our values and whether maintaining regular commercial service operations at the airport is important to the community.
Q: How much are these runway improvements going to cost the taxpayer?
A: Taxpayer dollars from property, sales, special district or federal income tax are not used to fund airport improvements today, and we do not anticipate the use of general fund tax money for these improvements.
As your public servants tasked with maintaining, operating and ensuring the success of this valuable public asset, we welcome your involvement and opinions. Remember, this is your airport, and we intend to do everything in our power to make it something the entire community can benefit from and be proud of well into the future. I invite you to learn more and provide feedback on the Air Service Study at http://www.pitkin countyconnect.com.
Jon Peacock is Pitkin County manager and is serving as the interim director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.