High Points: The airport ecosystem | AspenTimes.com

High Points: The airport ecosystem

Paul E. Anna
High Points
The Aspen Times

What’s the most valuable amenity in our town?

It is tough to argue that anything is more valued and valuable to us than the four ski mountains. But the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is likely in an unrivaled second place. While everyone loves Ajax, Highlands, the ‘Mass, and the ‘Milk, they don’t necessarily feel the same way about the airport. In fact, there seems to be a lot of angst these days concerning the airport that serves so many of us in so many different ways. I hate to say it, but that is so Aspen.

One of the reasons I was able to move here 30 years ago is because Aspen had an airport that could get me where I needed to go. I used to think of Sardy Field as being a bit like a bus or a train terminal: As long as I could take the cross-mountain flight to Denver, I was connected to the world.

That still is the case, but rather than flying old Dash-7s to the now nearly forgotten Stapleton Airport, today I am just as likely to make my connections in Chicago or Houston or L.A. on the Canadair Regional 700s that are the plane of choice for the airlines.

We commercial travelers often think of the airport only in terms of the United, American, and Delta flights that wing their way in and out of Sardy Field. But the private planes these days account for more than 80% of all takeoffs and landings. And then, there are aviation enthusiasts who simply love to fly their single engine planes in the high mountain environment.

Sardy Field is crucial to the economic well-being of the community. Not only does it provide the gateway for visitors into our resort community, but it is also one of the biggest employers in the valley, with hundreds of people who in different ways, shapes, and forms make their living working at the airport. From the people who check your bags or check you in, to those who fuel the planes and de-ice the wings, to the air traffic controllers to the snowplow drivers, to the … well, you get the picture. And who doesn’t know someone who took a job at the airport just for travel benefits?

This is a critical time for our airport. The FAA came to town recently, and for three hours, told citizens, the Airport Advisory Board, and the Pitkin County commissioners that we aren’t special, and if we wanted to get “discretionary funding” to improve things like our terminal, we better get on board.

Getting on board means that the FAA wants us to widen the runway/taxiway separation from 320 feet to 400 feet, which will allow larger aircraft to land here. Some see that as a good thing. Some don’t.

Then there is the discussion about the fixed-base operator contract that expires Sept. 30. Pitkin County announced this month that it is proceeding in contract negotiations with Atlantic Aviation for potentially a 30-year-long contract. Many in the community believe that the county should undertake the operations of the FBO on our own. Some don’t.

These are tough questions that, like all things Aspen these days, are being fought out in the letter sections of the daily papers. The best way to get a grip on these issues and have a better understanding of airport operations is to get an up close and personal look. And the airport is offering that opportunity in a couple of weeks.

On Thursday, May 11 (the day after the airport closes for two weeks for Airfield Pavement Maintenance), there will be an open house at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport with members of the Airport Advisory Board on-hand to answer questions about the future changes that are currently under consideration. Two sessions will take place from noon-2 p.m. and from 4:30-6:30 p.m. in the main passenger terminal. There are also two airport tours available on a limited space basis.

To sign up, go to aspenairport.com/2922-2.

It may be the best thing you can do at the airport that doesn’t involve taking a flight.