Paul Andersen: Aspen is the wrong airport to expand

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The Aspen airport is rated the most dangerous airport in the United States.

“In order to land in snowy Aspen, pilots must be specially certified to do so,” warns Airfare Watchdog. “This is likely due to the fact that the airport, which is wedged between two mountains, requires a swift descent at high altitude.”

England’s “The Telegraph” also ranks Aspen No. 1 in difficulty: “Pilots landing here require special training due to its steep approach path. The mountainous area surrounding the airport also poses a challenge, forcing the pilots to land and take off in opposite directions, but using a single runway.

“The airport has seen several crash landings, including an incident involving a Gulfstream charter plane in 2001 which killed all 18 people on board, while in 2011, a private plane crashed at the airport and erupted into a ball of flames after trying to land in heavy winds.”

In a recent letter to the editor, longtime local aviator John McBride suggested that the gargantuan expansion proposed for the Aspen airport seems to be targeting the wrong airstrip.

McBride cited the same disadvantages as above: the Aspen airport is sandwiched between mountain ridges at the end of a mountain valley with no option to lengthen the current runway; the airport is prone to harsh winter weather that often cancels flights and forces diversions; the airport operates with takeoffs and landings in opposite directions, a prescription for danger.

McBride writes: “A plan to spend $400 million to move the runway 80 feet west (bringing the flight path nearer to Shale Bluffs) and to build a new terminal up to the size of almost two football fields will not change any of these concerns.”

Instead, McBride suggests developing the Rifle airport as a more sensible regional airport, taking advantage of a much larger and flatter valley, an existing 7,000-foot-long East/West runway with takeoffs/landings in the same direction, and with an elevation almost 2,500 feet lower than Aspen to allow greater lift and milder weather conditions.

Take McBride’s idea one step further: Instead of spending $400 million on morphing Aspen into a mega airport, a portion of those funds could both improve the Rifle airport and fund an improved transit infrastructure from Rifle to Aspen.

This would address two key transit objectives: providing a safer, more dependable airport within reasonable range of Aspen, and enabling the downvalley workforce with a sane commuting experience that provides greater ease and efficiency.

None of this will happen unless out-of-the-box thinking can hold sway over the status quo of traditional mindsets. Transportation planners must reject conformity to preconceived notions of how to get people to and from Aspen by looking beyond the Roaring Fork Valley.

Morphing the quaint Aspen airport of today — the most dangerous airport in the U.S. — into a “Jetsons”-style spaceport is being sold to the public as an economic necessity, when it’s not.

There’s no cost/benefit in sacrificing long-term safety and efficiency for short term expedience and convenience. That’s not smart planning. Combining air and ground travel to accommodate regional needs well into the future is good planning.

Assuming Pitkin County accepts huge grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, the local community may lose autonomy of the airport and forfeit control of the size of aircraft that could dramatically alter the fleet of jets that could service Aspen.

Bigger is not better when 737s come knocking on Aspen’s door, roaring overhead like valkyries and compromising the already tenuous rural character for which Aspen still claims a sense of identity and place.

Commercial interests are clearly at the controls, guiding the proposed Hindenburg of an airport expansion on the assumption that bigger jets will bring more passengers and more money to enrich insatiable commercial interests. And so it goes …

Perhaps it’s a wrong assumption that the citizens of Rifle would even want to accommodate Aspen’s air travelers. That’s a regional question that should be weighed by the larger social values of scale and compatibility where the downvalley workforce could potentially benefit.

Meanwhile, the $400 million estimate for Aspen’s expansion is a princely sum for grandiose designs at the most dangerous airport in the country.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at