John Colson: Airport expansion decision getting close

John Colson
Hit & Run

Most local observers are well aware that Pitkin County is working on a plan to significantly rebuild, expand and “improve” the county’s beleaguered airport, which once was known as Sardy Field in honor of a former county commissioner, the late Tom Sardy (he died in 1990), whose vision and determination back in the 1940s got the airport built in the first place.

Back then, of course, Sardy Field was a pretty rustic place, for some time boasting dirt runways and a veritable shack for a terminal.

But over the ensuing years it has been expanded, redesigned and rebuilt, so that for the past four decades it has been essentially what you see today — a relatively modern, low-profile, wooden-sided terminal for commercial travelers, with a nearby Fixed Base Operation building that serves the many wealthy residents and visitors who get here by private plane, both of them sitting alongside an arrangement of runways, airplane parking and taxi areas.

When I first moved to the area, back in the late 1970s, the airport was served by two small airlines. One was Rocky Mountain Airways (a regional carrier based out of Denver that shut down in 1991), which was founded as Vail Airways in 1963 but renamed in 1968.

The other was Aspen Airways, also a regional carrier, originally based out of Aspen but later shifting to Denver, as well.

The difficulties of providing air service to small towns and resorts in the mountains, as you might imagine, would fill a pretty good-sized book, and it is likely that book has been written, though I’ve not seen it.

But aside from all that, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has been serving airline passengers through some fairly wild times, including a mid-1990s fight over a prior expansion proposal that brought out the inimitable antics of the late Gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, who led the charge to defeat that proposal at the ballot box.

And now we’re back at it, but this time with some fairly momentous differences.

For one thing, Thompson, who died by his own hand in 2005 (almost exactly 15 years ago), obviously is not going to be manning the barricades this time. But some of his former neighbors in Woody Creek (directly under the flight path of planes) and other local spots have reignited the flames of opposition to this new airport renewal effort.

Secondly, the effort to expand the airport is a bit more democratically arranged this time around, thanks to Pitkin County’s decision to talk the idea to death before it gets to a decision point.

For more than a year, more than 120 people have been gathering at an endless series of meetings to hammer out what, exactly, are the ins and outs of the arguments for and against the airport expansion.

The county has established several citizen committees to handle specific aspects of the information-gathering stage, and the participants are not all pro-expansion, as a cynical observer might expect.

Nope, there are those who are adamantly opposed to the expansion plans. Among their arguments is the contention that bringing in bigger planes will be the equivalent of opening Aspen up to the kind of industrial tourism that has turned Eagle County into one big residential and commercial suburb of Vail and Beaver Creek, to the detriment of the Aspen community’s soul.

Others, though, have taken to heart the cautionary data contained in a six-page draft document, labeled “Findings,” that lays out a number of deficiencies and problems represented by the aging facility and the crusty fleet of planes that serve it.

To give the Findings in detail would be impossible here, but some of them make sense in terms of the existing levels of noise and airplane-spawned air pollution experienced by neighbors of the airport today, not to mention the airport-related clouds of greenhouse gases that must be reduced.

Then there is the likelihood that the sturdy CRJ-700 planes currently doing most of the flying into Aspen will be retired soon for reasons having to do with advancing age, rising maintenance costs, poor fuel efficiency, unacceptable noise levels and an apparent lack of interest on the part of airplane manufacturers to come up with a replacement aircraft with roughly the same dimensions and operating parameters as the CRJ-700s.

And finally there’s the conclusion by some that Aspen could reasonably handle a small increase in incoming visitors, and that slightly bigger, newer planes could be accommodated without too much disruption.

I ought to note here that I was an opponent of the airport expansion proposal in the mid-1990s, and that I have similar leanings today.

But I’m trying to keep an open mind at this point, having read through the findings as they stood last weekend. The hope on the part of the citizen planners is to get a summary of recommendations together this week and perhaps submit them to the county very soon.

And that, dear reader, is when the real wrestling match will begin.

At that point, the Board of County Commissioners will embark on the lonely task of trying to satisfy everyone, on every side of this issue, in a way that keeps planes flying into and out of the Aspen area so the river of tourism cash keeps flowing.

And we’ll all be watching.

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