Whatever Aspen Airport Master Plan gets passed, it is much improved by the public comment the commissioners wanted. The private hangars have largely been eliminated. The new terminal will have a better chance of community acceptance with more public comment on the new design. The limit on wingspans exceeding 95 feet is unchanged. The plan won’t include a large parking structure. This community owes much to Cliff Runge and Andrew Doremus as their efforts threw light onto this issue and they were right.
Two issues remain. For one, the FAA seems more concerned about private aviation than commercial; the plan also needs more focus the environmental impacts of air travel.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s John Bauer came to town to remind our Pitkin County commissioners that there’s no free lunch when it comes to promises made to the federal government. It was enough to turn anyone into an anti-government tea bagger.
Pitkin County has made assurances over the years to get grant money for safety upgrades, and the FAA intends we keep them. That’s not objectionable as the assurances mandate fair competition and try to avoid monopolies. So why is Bauer more concerned about private aviation wants than our need for a new commercial terminal, whatever its ultimate size? Because a new terminal isn’t the issue and never was — securing more public land for private jet owners is. He came to town so we’d know the FAA is going to make sure another fixed-base operator (FBO) gets built if someone wants to build one.
And boy do they want to build one — willing enough to build another taxiway, invest over $100 million and threaten to sue if the county commissioners oppose such an effort. But this might just go away too because with the hangars out of the master plan and the high rent rates with them, will those threatening suit be interested in just selling jet fuel a little bit cheaper or providing better chicken salad sandwiches?
FBOs are commercial businesses granted the right to operate at airports. Ours provides services like fueling, catering, flight instruction, hangars etc. and operates much like a marina except at an airport instead of on the water. They are “fixed” because they are tied to a location.
Bauer himself, perhaps intentionally, left us a flight plan to deny the unnecessary extra FBOs. He said the FAA would need a clear justification for denial. Here are a couple based on the FAA’s own criteria as explained by Mr. Bauer: safety, monopolies and future aeronautical uses.
Another FBO will be bad for safety. How could it be safe to limit the size of the aircraft landing here due to the limited distance between the runway and the taxiway, and then propose what little extra space we have be devoted to another too-close taxiway?
Another FBO won’t avoid a monopoly. If someone builds another FBO they will compete (or pretend to) for a while with the existing FBO, then one will buy out the other and we will be right back where we started — a monopoly. Monopolies make sense when they prevent duplication of services and further the public interest. Take utilities for instance. Anyone proposing to build a second FBO must make their justification based on what’s good for Pitkin County. An attempt to secure public land for private interests is not enough.
More FBOs will squander scarce, expensive public land to benefit a few people at the expense of our potential future needs. We won’t be buying any more land for airports in Pitkin County so is this a wise use of public property? Our concern should be making sure our airport is the right size for serving citizens and our tourist base now and preserving our options for future needs. This does neither.
Our commissioners have always been strong in the face of powerful influences. They took on Leslie Wexner over the Sutey Ranch land swap and if we are willing to fight Victoria’s Secret (one of Wexner’s Limited Brands) then surely the FAA won’t present much of a problem. Is this any different than other attempts by a too-wealthy few to acquire public land at public expense for their own wants? The FAA and John Bauer are tasked with protecting the public interest too. Reminded them of that and they will find it difficult to defend fighting an entire community just to please a handful.
We should pass a master plan and include in it an expression of community opposition to more FBOs. Insist on strong language placing community values first and questioning why the FAA seems willing to hold hostage public money for safety improvements to secure the rights of a few private jet owners. Put the FAA in the game, at the table and on the hook for the approval of any future FBO by requiring its presence at public meetings. The agency won’t like the pressure.
Or let’s be really bold and require — as a condition of approval — carbon neutrality at our airport, as air travel is our number-one contributor to greenhouse gases. It is false to say the FAA only prevents us. We can lead on this, and Runge and Doremus have a realistic proposal to get us to neutrality. It should be considered by our board and brought to the FAA.
This column is dedicated to a lively discussion/forum regarding issues of public policy in Aspen and Pitkin County. If you have any questions about a particular matter of policy that you’d like see discussed or suggestions about topics/ issues, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . I’ll respond to all responsible and serious queries and e-mails.