Guest commentary: Our future Aspen airport is a worthy vision

John Bennett, Meg Haynes and Jackie Francis
Guest commentary

The “Common Ground” plan recommended by the Airport Vision Committee would create an airport with enhanced safety, greatly reduced noise and emissions, more fuel-efficient planes, a beautiful new “net-zero” terminal, and a dramatically reduced carbon footprint in what we believe would be the most green and sustainable airport our size anywhere in the world. It’s exciting and worth supporting.

Our four goals

The Vision Committee’s airport plan is based on four Core Community Goals: (1) Enhance the airport’s safety, (2) Reduce its greenhouse gas and other emissions by at least 30%, (3) Reduce noise by at least 30%, and (4) Manage future airline enplanement growth to approximately 0.8% per year.

We achieved our high level of consensus (20-1) by continually tying our discussions to these goals.

Achieving the goals

Early on, we recognized that neither leaving the airport as it is today nor enlarging it without constraints offered any hope of achieving the four goals. Instead, we sought a “Common Ground” approach that reflected both our community values and future aviation technology.

Our plan offers creative, cutting-edge ideas to reduce emissions, lower noise, manage growth and enhance safety. A few examples:

• Legal agreements with airlines to bring in only less polluting, quieter planes

• A mandatory reservation system for private planes

• Increased aeronautical spacing between planes (private and commercial)

• Peak hour congestion pricing for private planes

• Eliminating noisy, smelly auxiliary power units

• Carbon-based landing fees

• Fewer peak-hour flights in high season

• Continual monitoring and modeling of airport emissions

• Moving parked aircraft farther away from homes

• Direct airline routes that reduce CO2 emissions and save energy

• Building a new terminal with only seven gates instead of today’s eight (avoiding the “cruise ship syndrome”)

• An airport solar farm and biofuel facilities

• A new airport circulator bus for ground transportation

• A citizen advisory board to measure annual progress toward the four community goals

We recognize that a key element of our plan requires airline negotiation, but our plan calls on the county simply to require airlines to use only their most fuel efficient, quiet (and profitable) future planes. That’s not unreasonable.

Were other alternatives considered?

Absolutely. Originally, some members wanted simply a large airport with bigger planes, while others would have preferred to shrink the airport and move it to Carbondale or Rifle.

During 15 months of listening to each other and to independent aviation experts, our exploration and discoveries led in surprising directions. We learned that many simplistic ideas wouldn’t work (e.g., “just become a private airport”). As our dialogue deepened, we evolved beyond our initial positions toward our final “common ground” plan.

Did the committee assume CRJ-700 planes would retire?

No, we found that airlines would likely use it for another decade. But older aircraft become expensive to maintain and operate, they suffer more out-of-service time, and they burn much more fuel than newer planes. The world is moving away from noisy, polluting planes like the CRJ. By 2030, our airlines’ average CRJ will be around 26 years old, beyond the age when airlines normally retire smaller regional aircraft.

For many Vision Committee members, the main objectives of our plan were cleaning up our airport and keeping it safe, not worrying about the CRJ. Today’s airport is a major source of carbon and other pollution. Our environment, local residents, visitors and airport staff all deserve better.

How does COVID-19 affect our plan?

It resets the timing and is already causing a substantial pause. Airlines today are in survival mode; they’re in no shape to negotiate future airport contracts. But those that survive will be keenly interested in becoming more fuel efficient and inexpensive to operate.

After the 9/11 attacks, airline enplanements took three years to recover. The same (or more) time may be required for their post-COVID recovery. We had expected our airport plan to take seven to nine years to build. Now the County is estimating 11 to 12 years. No one is rushing, and the county has ample time to get it right.

COVID will not affect the community values and goals that underlie our airport plan. Our commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce noise, manage our growth, and enhance safety will long outlive the current pandemic. These urgent environmental and community goals also explain why delaying beyond 11 to 12 years would be a bad idea.

The Vision

We thank our fellow Airport Vision Committee members who overcame many initial differences to agree on a plan that is great for the environment and that will improve the quality of life of everyone who lives or visits here.

The “Common Ground” plan represents a truly ambitious vision. And a worthy one.

John Bennett is “pilot” of the Airport Vision Committee. He is a former Aspen mayor, non-profit leader and business owner. Meg Haynes is “copilot” of the committee. She is a 30-plus year Fortune 200 company worldwide management consultant to chairmen and CEOs and Starwood Homeowners Association’s executive director. Jackie Francis is “navigator” of the committee and founder and director of an international climate organization, business owner and longtime local (50 years).