John Colson: A few thoughts on the Aspen airport plan
December 24, 2018
Let's see, it was the mid-1990s, as I recall, either 1995 or 1996.
That was the last time that managers at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, otherwise known as Sardy Field, tried to whip up community support for a vastly expanded airport runway, terminal and other infrastructure.
Back then, the main interest seemed to be in coming up with a way that those Boeing behemoths known as 737s could land here. Up until then, the runways were too short and too narrow to handle the weight and wingspan of the big planes, and the powers that be wanted to change that so that we could compete with — what, Vail, with its larger Eagle County Airport at Gypsum?
It didn't work then, and while there have been runway expansions and other work since then in Aspen, they have been nothing like the most recent pitch to build a bigger airport. It appears that the airport management, and perhaps the Board of County Commissioners, all are convinced it is time to try again to create runways that can handle much larger aircraft than currently fly here, as well as a shiny new terminal building to accommodate a larger flow of passengers.
When I first heard of this latest push a couple of years ago, my first thoughts were: "What's up with the people who run Sardy Field? Those big ol' 737s can't land here, can they?"
The prevailing wisdom more than 20 years ago was that because of Aspen's altitude, around 8,000 feet, and a resulting and alarming tendency of the air around here to get pretty thin in the hot days of summer, those planes might be able to fly in but they probably could not fly out during hot weather.
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But, wait, the proponents of the expansion/enlargement say they're not aiming at bringing in 737s, which they are willing to admit might have trouble with our thin air.
Instead, they say the current crop of regional aircraft, the old CRJ700 Bombardiers, are about to be phased out, with no plans to switch to something about the same size, a relatively small craft that would be just as able to land and take off from Sardy Field even in the thin summer months. So they need the expansion to make it possible for bigger planes, though they won't say exactly which planes.
Why would the airlines deliberately announce they are about to phase out the only planes that make sense for our airport, which according to observers is one of United Airlines' most profitable air travel routes in the country?
And why would they let it be known that the only way to solve this little puzzle is for us (that's the taxpayers, you and me and the rest of our overburdened working-class national population) to foot what could be a half-billion-dollar bill for a monstrously enlarged set of runways and other airport infrastructure?
I'll tell you why. The airlines want Aspen and Pitkin County to kowtow to them in the same way that major cities around the nation have always gone along with airport expansion plans. They want us to subsidize their business model, as we always have done in such cases.
As for our desires here in Tinsel Town on the Divide, well, that really doesn't matter, does it?
I mean, we've already been subject to decades of highway improvement projects in order to subsidize the auto, oil and highway building industries in Colorado.
Nationally, we allow our public lands to be used by ski companies everywhere (not to mention other, more industrialized uses of our public lands, but that's another story).
So why should we gripe if the airlines say they can't keep flying passengers to Aspen unless we make the runways wider and longer, the terminal fancier and larger, and in general turn Sardy Field into our imitation of Denver International Airport?
There are many reasons why we might want to gripe, not the least being the ongoing transformation of Aspen into a place where only the very wealthiest can afford to hang out. But, if we want this place to truly become nothing but a playground for the one-percenters, by all means, let's get moving on the airport expansion.
On the other hand, we could insist that the airlines find another kind of plane to serve the unique flying environment above Highway 82. I cannot believe there are no small jets being designed or built today that could replicate the flexibility of the old CRJ700 Bombardiers, bring in pretty much the same number of passengers per flight and could do so by landing on the runways we already have.
The current thinking is limited only by the blinders that keep us locked in the growth-at-any-cost model of human endeavor, the same model that is rapidly making our planet uninhabitable, and we cannot continue down that road.
I still have buttons and posters from the last time the airport sought approvals to vastly expand the runways and to attract bigger planes, back in the 1990s.
At that time, the late Hunter S. Thompson led a motley crew on a rolling thunder campaign to stop the project in its tracks, so to speak, and the voters responded by rejecting the expansion plan.
HST, unfortunately, was dead by his own hand a decade after that historic battle, and so far no one has stepped forward to fill his shoes in this particular way.
I'd say Aspen and Pitkin County are in desperate need of a new champion, able to reassert the people's will over the cancerous concept of growth-at-any-cost.
And I suppose we'd need a new motto, although Hunter's — "There is Some S–t We Won't Eat" — would be hard to beat.
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