Merritt: Pros and cons missing in Aspen’s airport meetings

Jackie Merrill
Guest Commentary
Guest Commentary
The Aspen Times

Since I served on the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport Vision Committee a few years ago, I have continued to do my own independent research as a self-appointed investigator and now have a broad and troubling perspective on the process itself from the beginning.

I am a 35-year Aspen resident and an aspiring elder, age 84, and have zero vested interest or hidden agenda in any airport outcome.

I offered the Vision Committee my years in business (with an MBA) and in Roaring Fork Valley non-profit, volunteer work under my belt and am now disturbed and filled with moral insult.

My first suggestion as a Vision Committee member was that we all share for the record any potential conflicts of interest. That never happened. The glaring absence of a balanced flow of information during both the Vision Committee discussions and the Airport Advisory Board meetings is an insult to our collective intelligence.

My thoughts for next steps follow after these specifics that explain my apprehension:

Our very structured meetings of the Vision Committee did not allow for debate on the pros and cons of ADG III full compliance, FAA funding and historical negotiations with them, local control of the FBO, or airside expansion.

Jackson Hole airport bought out its FBO and is operating it with its own staff starting this May. Are there others? As of four years ago, a National Academies report cited 1,562 publicly-owned airports being run by private contractors — three quarters of those were owned by county or municipal governments.

We deserve reports of what has worked and not worked with local FBO control at equivalent airports. We also deserve to know the history of the period when Aspen’s FBO was managed locally. We need to see independently-prepared, financial pro formas comparing different FBO ownership and business models.

I presume the Pitkin County commissioners and staff staff have a list of all airports with commercial service and where private aircraft comprise more than 50% of ops, in which case that list should be published.

Absent hearing both/all sides of that narrative, I cannot meet the responsibilities of an informed citizen. I certainly cannot trust, without proper civil discourse, the claims of some who favor expansion. I was stunned that some advisory board members heard for the first time on May 18, from Wayne Ethridge, of our successful past negotiations with the FAA! We deserve that story and perhaps other stories from other airports on their interactions with the agency.

The push to expand the airport originated with large, private business jet owners. All efforts to document this evidence, which exists, have been thwarted and blocked. As responsible citizens we should have been privy to the motivations for this push so as to put a possible airside expansion into context.

Most important, our valley seems totally united on one point: major improvements immediately to the terminal for both employees’ and passengers’ sakes. With the FAA insisting that airside changes, taking many years, happen before or concurrently with the terminal, why would we comply with their dictates that ignore our priorities?

How about postponing a decision with Atlantic if further investigation offers the practical possibility of local FBO management and local income streams? If safety is our priority, don’t we want a locally-managed FBO better able to influence and incentivize the additional certification of private pilots landing here? These are not rhetorical questions and merit complete answers from unbiased sources.

The major airline executives, if asked, would no doubt confirm that Aspen’s lucrative market is impossible for them to avoid or abandon. They will find a way to operate here no matter what the circumstances. The past failed histories of smaller commercial airlines here are irrelevant to the big operators.

As several have said, there is “no chance in hell” that we will become a private-only airport. I know of no one who is proposing that red herring.

What to do? First, mark your calendars for a June 28 public hearing with the Board of County Commissioners, virtually or in person.

Then write to county commissioners and to Airport Advisory Board members and demand a pause in all airport decisions to allow answers and more balanced information, both about retaining public control and income from the FBO as well as about the airport forecast and fleet mix, which received a devastating independent critique, sent to but not mentioned in advisory board meetings.

Without a unified push to pause what seem to be slanted discussions with foregone conclusions in place, without a demand for answers to apparently unwelcome questions, we risk unintended consequences and regretting decisions made without the full scoop.

To those who roll their eyes and mutter, “Enough already, we have been at this too long,” I say we have been at this for too long without all the relevant balanced information we deserve.

Jackie Merrill, of Aspen, is a past member of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport Vision Committee.