John Colson: If 737s can land at Aspen airport now, is expansion needed? |

John Colson: If 737s can land at Aspen airport now, is expansion needed?

John Colson
Hit & Run

It’s rare that events conspire to force me into a direct follow-up column — tackling the same subject two weeks in a row — but this week I just can’t help but reprise the subject of a proposed massive expansion at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (otherwise known by its historic moniker, Sardy Field).

As attentive local news readers know full well, the managers of the airport and their elected bosses in the county government have put out feelers regarding an expansion that would allow bigger planes to land here than ever have before.

Specifically, the proposed expansion would add some 80 feet of runway length, would broaden the runway from its current 100-foot width (and 95-foot wingspan limit) to 150 feet, all of which is meant to accommodate larger aircraft, such as Boeing 737s, than currently can land here.

At the same time, the proponents want to build a new commercial-aviation terminal of between 60,000 and 80,000 square feet, over the terminal’s reported present size of about 47,000 square feet.

The news that inspired me to scrap a planned column on a different topic was a story about a 737 that landed at our airport Dec. 27, in what was described as a first-ever landing by such a big plane. (A pre-presidential Donald J. Trump once flew here on a 727, but that’s a different matter.)

This one also was a private jet, owned by a Texas oil company, with a wingspan of 94 feet, 9 inches. That’s a mere 3 inches shy of the upper wingspan limit currently in effect at the airport, according to a story by The Aspen Times’ intrepid reporter on the airport beat, Jason Auslander.

A tight squeeze, in other words, but one that fit narrowly within the bounds of the Federal Aviation Administration’s restrictions, as did the plane’s weight of 90,000 pounds at landing and 80,000 pounds at takeoff a short time later (the restrictions permit aircraft of 100,000 pounds or lighter to fly into the airport.)

So, what gives here? Pitkin County was the scene of a raucous debate a little over two decades ago about a similar airport expansion that would allow planes of this category to land here, and the anti-737 crowd, ably led by the late, lamented Hunter S. Thompson, won that fight by a substantial margin when the question was put to the voters.

In the intervening years, the county has quietly expanded the runway a couple of times, but the dreaded phrase “737 cleared for landing” was magically missing from the discussions of those earlier expansions.

This time, though, it has quickly become clear that 737s are at the heart of the fight, and a fight it seems to be.

My question is why do we need to expand the airport, at a cost of about a half a billion dollars, if some version of these larger planes can (and apparently do) land here already?

Granted, this particular plane, which is a model dating from the mid-1990s, is smaller than the typical 737s currently flying, which is why it was able to barely squeak under the FAA’s limits.

Still, the question remains, where is the need to spend all this money on an airport perched at the western edge of the Continental Divide and serving a tiny rural ski town, particularly since it appears the major beneficiaries of the expansion would be the private aircraft carrying the uber-wealthy Aspen elite?

I mean, sure, this elite group of high fliers deserves to be able to travel by airplane to get to their vacation homes perched on the hills around Aspen. But where is it written that we taxpayers must subsidize an ego-driven desire to own the biggest planes available and to be able to fly them into the airport nearest to the multimillion-dollar mansions owned and occasionally inhabited by these elites?

If that is written somewhere into the U.S. or Colorado constitutions, I must have missed it.

And if it is not, then why are our elected leaders fawning over the relatively less-noisy landing of this aging 737 in Aspen a week ago?

I refer, particularly, to Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper’s quoted statements about the 737 zooming in to our airport Dec. 27.

Even though Clapper went to some length to emphasize that the decision about the airport expansion has yet to be made, and to point to an estimated yearlong period of public discussion before any such decision will be make, it sure sounded as though she was a big fan of the larger planes.

And let me be clear — according to what I’ve been reading about this process, it is being driven by the fact that in order to accomplish this expansion, our local officials will need astronomical levels of financial aid from the FAA. And it is precisely this financial assistance from the feds that will result in local airport officials being hog-tied by FAA stipulations that if an aircraft can be shown to come in under federal size limits, it must be allowed to land here.

Isn’t that what we once might have termed a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy?

The planes cannot land here now because of FAA size restrictions and safety considerations. And in order to make it so these planes can land here we are being asked to take a big chunk of federal largesse, which in turn will force us to permit these planes to land here.

Never mind that some observers intimately aware of airport operations believe this all to be a bad idea.

Our air space already is overburdened with airplanes flying into, out of and around Sardy Field, the objectors say.

Our town already is maxed out with tourists at certain times of the year, as anyone can plainly see.

And it already is ludicrously expensive to fly here from just about anywhere, a circumstance that is not likely to be alleviated by this expansion.

Is this not the very essence of poor planning, or am I missing something here?

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