Charlie Leonard: Airport expansion boggles the mind |

Charlie Leonard: Airport expansion boggles the mind

Charlie Leonard
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

In order to make the Roaring Fork Valley home for the past 15 years, I’ve logged more than 1 million air miles so I could continue working as a consultant to businesses, organizations and governments just about everywhere but Aspen. Consequently, I’m not exactly sure how many trips I’ve made through our little airport, but it’s at least 250 round trips and probably more. That’s 500 departures and arrivals, give or take a couple dozen bus rides and car rentals from Denver, Grand Junction and Eagle as a result of diverted flights. But mostly, my trips through the Aspen airport have been remarkably uneventful.

Typically, I arrive at the airport about 35 to 40 minutes before my flight, park in one of the paid lots, clear security, grab a cup of coffee and find a place to sit while I wait for my flight to board. If I need to check a bag, I might add five minutes to my arrival time, but that’s probably more than I need. Returning is even less eventful, especially since you can always count on stepping off the plane onto the tarmac. Whether it’s raining, snowing or late in the evening, there is nothing quite like that first deep breath of air and a good look around at the mountains or night sky. Stepping off a stuffy plane into the mountain air says you are home in a place like no other.

Simply put, the Aspen airport is not broken. And it certainly does not need to be replaced by an 80,000-square-foot, $100 million monstrosity.

Some will argue that most of the money for this fiasco would come from the Federal Aviation Administration and wouldn’t result in a large capital expense for our local governments.

Well, the last time I checked, the FAA still was part of the federal government, and the federal government doesn’t actually have the money it’s already committed to giving away. In fact, Washington is currently borrowing about 45 cents of every dollar it spends. Since our local governments have never been shy about telling Washington lawmakers how to do their jobs, perhaps they could use these circumstances to take a stand and speak out about our national debt and deficits. If we have any principles at all, we won’t take the money – especially since we don’t need it.

Even if you accept the airport’s assumptions about future growth – which I don’t, given the recent loss of Frontier Airlines and our ever-dwindling number of hotel rooms – there is no justification for a new airport on the scale they are proposing.

The airport in Santa Barbara, Calif., handles more than 600,000 passengers a year, and over the next 25 years that number is expected to grow to more than 850,000. Given that Santa Barbara’s airport serves an area population more than five times larger than Aspen’s, as well as a four-season resort with several thousand tourist beds, you can almost see why it needed some additional space. To meet this demand, Santa Barbara just spent $63 million on a new 60,000-square-foot terminal, new parking lots and a significant amount of traffic improvements.

Contrast that with Aspen, where the airport handled about 223,000 passengers last year and airport officials believe the number could grow to 250,000 in the next five years. Putting aside the fact we are just a two-season resort in a valley with a population of fewer than 125,000, and a declining number of tourism beds, my money says they are guessing on the high end.

A couple of other observations worth noting about the new Santa Barbara airport are that it has a total of three security lines, five boarding gates and one small restaurant not unlike the one we already have at our airport. Even with passenger traffic more than 200 percent greater than Aspen, the 60,000-square-foot Santa Barbara airport seems excessively cavernous and out of scale, even in the morning when the airport is at its busiest. Why Aspen would want all of that – and another 20,000 square feet – boggles the mind and the pocketbook.

Now, if only we had a local public official, opposed to growth and development, looking for something to do when he finds himself term-limited and out of job, who could step forward and put the brakes on this crazy mega-airport scheme.

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