Private Plane

A private plane takes off from Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Monday. An essay released on Thursday by Aspen Fly Right says preliminary findings show that planes taking off from the airport contribute to air pollution in the area. 

On Thursday, local nonprofit Aspen Fly Right released a 33-page essay on air pollutants near the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, finding substantial upticks related to increased traffic along Highway 82 but not taking measurements on the nanoparticles that make up a large component of jet exhaust, urging further study on the matter.

During a five-day period in February, the group utilized 14 portable instruments to measure five different air pollutants, but did not quantify “ultrafine” particles that the essay, and Aspen Fly Right President Amory Lovins on Monday, assert are more “concerning” than other jet-engine pollutants like nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. 

“We’re simply trying to fill a major measurement gap by doing affordable basic measurements just good enough to check if an air-quality issue needs careful study,” the essay reads. “[Ultrafine particles are] more toxic than bigger particles. Yet they’re wholly unregulated. Medical evidence strongly suggests checking if they might be creating significant health risks to our community.”

The essay acknowledges the study’s own limitations but claims it did “find evidence suggesting a causal connection between airplanes’ jet exhaust and some unknown part of the air pollution we measured around the base of Buttermilk.”

As for the pollutants they did measure, the study was able to correlate large spikes in concentrations to times when cars arrived en masse, like when picking up children from the ski school at Buttermilk. The study says that some spikes seemed to follow airplanes taking off. These spikes were significantly higher at the Owl Creek bike path passing behind the runway and then the Owl Creek access road than it was at the base of Buttermilk.

As a whole, the measurements the research did take fell within federal standards, it said. The writers of the essay questioned the efficacy of those standards, however, as they’re taken as averages over longer periods of time.

“We found no evidence of a public-health emergency. (For completeness, though: being unable to measure nanoparticles, we can’t assess their concentrations or health implications. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.) There’s time to figure this out — with, we respectfully suggest, due deliberate speed.”

The essay says it is still working through its data collection after previously stating that the full presentation of data was delayed due to personal circumstances.

A recommended movement forward within the essay was a shift to zero-emission vehicles, a concept that Lovins touted highly in a panel discussion on Monday.

In that panel was Airport Advisory Board chair Jacque Francis, who reflected on that experience in Thursday’s board meeting.

“I think it’s really good that we have a community pushing to make us think creatively and also Aspen Fly Right to be helping us think creatively as well,” Francis said. “We are, as you know, the officially appointed airport advisory board and we don’t have the luxury of speculating on the future of what an airport might look like. We have to go within the parameters that an airport is operating in and we can put in the infrastructure for one of the best airports in the world, if not the best, but we have to do that with realism.”

AFR is recommending field measurements performed by independent experts with more capable equipment for measuring air pollution, specifically of ultrafine particles. It states that the study should be designed “under the direction of the Airport Advisory Committee,” and that funding should be led by local government but augmented by the state or federal government and the private sector.

Rich Allen is a sports reporter for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at