Lovins: Official myths or honest dialogue?

Amory Lovins
Aspen Fly Right
Guest Commentary
The Aspen Times

Based upon faulty assumptions, flawed analysis, and staff misstatements, Pitkin County is on the verge of approving an Aspen/Pitkin County Airport forecast that calls for bigger, louder, and dirtier planes.

Is this what our valley wants?

On May 4, Aspen Fly Right posted an essay, “Fact-checking airport claims: Over half are false.” Of 27 common statements about Aspen’s airport, mainly official, 14 were false, two partly false, and only two true. We’ve seen no improvement since.

More misrepresentations by county staff influenced the Airport Advisory Board’s 5-2 vote May 18, urging the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) to approve a new forecast of the airport’s traffic and airline fleet mix — a key step toward a new airside for bigger planes.

A few examples:

The deputy county manager claimed “emissions are significantly lower with the fleet mix we suggested, outside of the Embraer 175.” Not so. Using the BoCC resolution’s per-aircraft metric, nitrogen oxides would rise for all three aircraft types by 12%-94%.

He also claimed “the fleet mix that Is forecasted is quieter.” Untrue. By 2032, those Embraers make it 1.7 dB noisier than 2022, then the fleet gets an imperceptible 0.8 dB quieter by 2042. The county’s 2030 goals require nearly 5 dB quieter.

Our analysis found the growing new fleet would emit 41% more nitrogen oxides and 12% less CO2 per plane in 2042 than last year. But the BoCC resolution demanded at least 30% cleaner and quieter by 2030. Staff ignored those specific goals and substituted vague ones.

No proposed new plane gets near the BoCC’s noise and emissions goals. But staff switched the metric from per-plane to per-passenger, halving the impact of their doubled-size planes. That trick temporarily approaches the CO2  goal around 2037, while per-passenger NOx keeps rising. But in the resolution’s clear terms, the forecast meets none of the BoCC’s six requirements.

Moreover, the oversized A220s would need a new approximately $200 million airside that also admits bigger, older, noisier and dirtier private planes. Their unmentioned impacts could offset any benefits of the A220s whose adoption allows them.

What about passenger growth? The FAA’s Denver regional office rejected as too low a 0.6%/y growth plan requiring no bigger planes or new airside. The airport director said, “The data does not support the 0.6,” and all historic data “are above 1.3.” Untrue. Enplanement growth in 1995-2013 averaged 0.06%/y — nearly flat. Of the forecasters’ cherry picked 2000-22 “trend” of 1.4%/y, 88% of growth was in 2014-19, when it spurted from 0.6%/y in 2000-13 to 7%/y. Why?

The likely main cause: In 2015-18, with identical timing and pattern, short-term rentals more than doubled the Aspen-to-Carbondale pillow count. But the forecast ignores causality — the first thing the FAA instructs forecasters to consider. It forecasts Aspen enplanements solely from predicted Colorado income — spuriously, since just 3% of flights to Aspen originate in Colorado.

And crucially, the forecast assumes no lodging constraints for the resort with perhaps the tightest lodging constraints and strictest growth controls in the nation.

The forecasters, and apparently FAA staff, misanalyzed as destiny a “trend” grossly exaggerated by a brief one-time anomaly. That STR boom is already reversed, not a continuing growth driver, so extrapolating its effect to 2042 is absurd. The whole historic case for much passenger growth is dubious. Aspen’s ski-season seats flown peaked 30 years ago, then fell more and longer than they rose. Many general aviation trends pointed mainly downwards; GA fell again in 2022.

The deputy county manager said 400-foot runway/taxiway separation is “an FAA requirement.” False. The FAA told the BoCC April 18 that if the county didn’t insist on bigger planes, it could keep its 95-foot wingspan limit and airside — just lose discretionary grants, which we’ve shown that fixed base operation profits could offset.

The forecast assumes all CRJ700s will retire by 2032. United’s average under 14 years old, American’s well under 20, both highly profitable. (The only cited counterexample is Delta, with 3% Aspen market share.) These rugged planes can run 20-30 years more, say the county’s chief forecaster and the plane’s maker (or longer with routine life extension). If they’re wrong, the forecast’s assumed Embraers could carry on without a bigger airside. Claims to the Aiport Advisory Board that foregoing bigger planes could lose Aspen’s commercial air service are unfounded scare tactics.

Why must Aspen Fly Right, a small volunteer non-profit, raise donations to buy newspaper ads offering correct information, while a major taxpayer-funded PR campaign propagates often-wrong staff claims, many uncritically repeated? The problem isn’t just understaffed newsrooms.

County staff nominally work for elected commissioners but effectively control their agenda, decision processes, and information flows, choosing and instructing consultants and advisers, and deferentially steering BoCC decisions. Some commissioners’ understanding therefore contains gaps and errors. Despite years of requests, the BoCC has yet to hear for more than a few minutes the carefully-researched evidence comprehensively rebutting staff’s trusted claims.

The result could be a nine-figure investment mismatched to Aspen’s needs and exposing citizens to noisy, dirty old private 737s and A319s. If that’s not what you want, you must say so — and insist that all the county staff we pay must correct their facts, straighten up, and fly right.

Amory Lovins, of Old Snowmass, is president of the independent, volunteer, non-profit group Aspen Fly Right, with its summary ads and 10 documented essays, including No. 15 assessing the forecast, at


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