While the thrust of last week’s Technical Working Group report to all ASE Vision committees concerned the need for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport to lift wingspan and other restrictions that currently prohibit the next generation of planes from being used at the facility, much of the document also is related to safety. The technical group is one of four subcommittees that have completed their compilations of suggestions for the overarching ASE Vision Committee. That committee will be meeting early next year to come up with final recommendations for Pitkin County commissioners on how to proceed with potential construction of a new terminal building and airside improvements that possibly will involve a wider runway to accommodate greater wingspans. ASE is the industry’s code for the local airport.
The new report speaks of how the airport has a “very safe history” of commercial-carrier operations — only one aircraft incident, which resulted in minor damage and no injuries or deaths — in the 39 years between 1980 and 2019. “Commercial pilots operate under strict operating procedures and training required by airlines and [the Federal Aviation Administration] that reduce the likelihood of accidents,” the report says.
However, on the general aviation side of operations, which serve private jets and charters, 43 incidents have been counted in that same time frame. Of those 43 incidents at or around Sardy Field, 13 were fatal, resulting in 44 deaths. “Pitkin County is pre-empted by the FAA and is not able to require all pilots to adhere to the same safety requirements as commercial pilots,” the report states.
Still, the airport has become progressively safer: National Transportation Safety Board data show that since 1980, the number of aircraft incidents at or around ASE have decreased for each 10-year period, with a high of 17 incidents from 1980-89 to a low of three incidents over the past nine years, according to the report.
The committee noted that safety of aircraft operations has been identified as the “No. 1 priority” by respondents participating in an ASE Vision community survey. Better separation between the runways and taxiways, another limitation on the airport along with wingspans, has been identified in an Environmental Assessment and accepted by the FAA as among important safety enhancements “which are feasible to implement at ASE,” the report says.
As for the terminal building, the report pointed out that several safety challenges exist. Among them: The terminal does not meet the National Fire Protection Code, with the most significant issue being the slope of the ramp that drains back to the terminal. “In the event of a fuel spill, fuel would drain toward and not away from the terminal,” the report states.
The technical group was not the only subcommittee to address safety. The Community Character Working Group released its report first and asked that other subcommittees look at solutions to airport problems through the “community character lens.” The technical group’s report says the community character group suggested a “prioritization of investments” in policies and procedures to minimize the risk of crashes, accidents and hazardous-materials spills.
The technical group also is recommending that the county pursue increasing the spacing between aircraft on approach to improve safety. While the FAA is the final decider on spacing, “the county should advocate for increasing the spacing,” the report says.
Increasing the spacing between aircraft on approach also would “reduce the total capacity for operations during peak periods,” the report adds.