Airport progress requires moving runway 80 feet

by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism
Potential $132 million project would be needed to accommodate new jets

If Aspen wants to accommodate the next class of regional commercial jets, meet enhanced FAA safety standards, and build a private jet center on the west side of the runway, it will likely need to move the existing airport runway 80 feet to the west and widen it by 150 feet, Pitkin County commissioners learned Tuesday.

The county would also have to move a 2,500-foot section of Owl Creek Road and the adjacent bike path to the west, which requires retaining walls and using a small part of the Burlingame Ranch Open Space, which is owned by the city of Aspen. And that would likely require an affirmative vote by the residents of Aspen.

The information presented Tuesday at a work session was the result of a collaborative effort between Jim Elwood, the director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, consultants at Jviation in Denver, and John Bauer, the manager of airports in the FAA’s Denver district office.

Elwood, Bauer and J.D. Ingram, a principle at Jviation, told the commissioners that after three all-day workshops with a mix of officials, consultants and experts, they had narrowed 18 options down to two, both of which required widening and relocating the runway 80 feet to the west.

One option would cost $132 million, and another less-efficient option would cost $121 million. The FAA would be required under the National Environmental Policy Act to conduct at least an environmental assessment for the project.

The shift in the runway would have “minimal impact to approach and departure procedures,” according to Ingram of Jviation.

“There are 700 pages of approach and departure analysis to confirm that moving the runway is a viable choice,” Elwood said in a post-meeting interview.

The FAA’s Bauer said the federal agency directed the county and its consultants to do everything possible to minimize the need for any exceptions to FAA standards. The FAA sets safety standards for airports and funds 90 percent of most technical improvements at the Aspen airport.

Today, the airport operates under an FAA “modification” of standards, as the distance from the center line of the runway to the center line of the taxiway is only 340 feet, not the FAA standard of at least 400 feet. That restriction prevents planes with a wingspan of over 95 feet from landing in Aspen.

On a list of nine FAA safety standards, Aspen only fully meets four of them and so operates under additional modification from the FAA.

The FAA approved most of a new master plan for the airport in 2012, including a new terminal building, but it surprised the county when it did not approve the “airport layout plan,” which is part of the master plan that lays out exactly where airport runways and taxiways go.

The FAA said it would not approve a 340-foot modification for a new west side taxiway to accommodate a new fixed-base operator, or FBO, which services private jets. Instead, it said if the county wanted to build a taxiway and an FBO on the west side, it needed to comply with the FAA standard of 400 feet.

The FAA would, however, continue to tolerate the existing modification for the east side taxiway, even if the county wanted to go ahead with a new terminal.

But if the county also wanted to accommodate the coming new class of commercial jets, which are expected to have wingspans of up to 115 feet and be purchased and flown by commercial airlines in the next few years, then it would have to do something to bring at least the east side up to standards.

And the FAA also said if the county wanted to accommodate aircraft with 115-foot wingspans, then it would require the county to embrace the full standard for Aspen’s class of airports, which mean planes with a wingspan of up to 118 feet could land.

Over half of the fleet of Bombardier’s CRJ700 — which accounts for 95 percent of the commercial jets currently flying into Aspen — will be retired by 2021, and no airline has bought a new CRJ700 for three years, according to Ingram of Jviation.

“The technology is changing,” Elwood said, adding that airlines want fuel-efficient airplanes, and the seven types of regional jets now emerging into the marketplace all have wingspans longer than Aspen’s current 95-foot limit.

The runway at the airport was extended by 1,000 feet in 2011 at a cost of $15.5 million. Elwood said at the time of the project, it was not contemplated that moving the runway to the west would be perhaps the best way for the airport to move forward.

Moving the runway to the west would still require modifications to FAA standards, but they are minor compared to today’s exceptions at the Aspen airport.

In one option, planes would need clearance from the tower to use about 1,000 feet of the new west side taxiway, which would bulge out around the airport’s existing operation center.

In the second option, planes would need clearance to roll down about 4,500 feet of a new west side taxiway, which would take longer and potentially delay take-offs and landings. It would, however, only require moving about 900 feet of Owl Creek Road.

And in moving the runway 80 feet west, a new FBO building would also be pushed 160 feet closer to Owl Creek Road.

The commissioners listened to the new information and then directed Elwood and the consultants from Jviation to move to the next phase of their current effort to study the airport’s best options and go “conduct extensive public outreach.”

“We’re going to go out and talk to the community,” Elwood said.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative and collaborative news organization. More at www.aspenjournalismm.org.