As the ASE Vision process marches toward creating a community recommendation on the long-term future of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport by the end of the year, officials have decided to move forward now with what they say are much-needed temporary improvements to the facility.
Last week, Airport Director John Kinney outlined to Pitkin County commissioners a project designed to create more space for travelers inside the terminal building, which becomes cramped on many days in the winter and occasionally in the summer. Another aspect of the temporary upgrade, Kinney said, will be an expansion of the “baggage make-up area” where employees of commercial airlines move luggage to and from the terminal.
The $1.8 million cost of the project will be covered by the airlines, Kinney said.
“We front the costs and then we charge them back over a five-year period, at 5 percent interest, so in the end, there’s no cost to us,” he said, calling it “a pretty typical arrangement at any airport” for improvements that benefit the airlines and the travelers doing business with them.
Kinney explained that the airport terminal lost capacity of more than 100 passenger spaces in its “sterile boarding area,” out of slightly over 500 spaces, during a 2018 evaluation relating to the fire code. The area is the section of the airport where travelers wait to board flights after passing through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint.
The short-term upgrade involves eliminating a concessions/gift shop area within the sterile space and replacing it with seats. Concessions will be consolidated into the nearby café, he said.
Also, the administrative offices section of the terminal will be shrunk to create more room for passengers. Some administrators soon will be working on the other side of the runway in the airport operations center off Owl Creek Road. At the end of the year, the administrators likely will move into a pre-fabricated building that will be placed just east of the terminal.
The plan also calls for installation of a baggage tent next to the pre-fabricated administration building. The tent will house bags that are transported to the airport following flight diversions. Last winter, luggage from diversions was stacked inside the baggage claim section of the terminal, putting more stress on the cramped atmosphere inside the building.
“People picking up baggage after a flight diversion won’t have to go inside the terminal to retrieve it,” Kinney said.
During Kinney’s presentation last week, which occurred Tuesday at a work session of county officials, Commissioner George Newman characterized the project as another instance of “mish-mashing” and “Band-Aiding” the terminal.
Kinney responded that it has become challenging to work within the “antiquated facility.” In a follow-up interview, he said the short-term improvements are necessary to improve not only working conditions but also the customer experience as the community creates a plan for the facility’s long-term future.
“The direction that I’ve received is that as long as we’re in the visioning process, we don’t want to send any signal or any action that would give any members of the visioning committees any pause as to, are we doing our own thing independent of the visioning process or is the visioning process really shaping the future of the airport? The answer is the latter,” he said.
“What we’re doing is simply addressing safety and security issues, and then returning the capacity that we lost last year through a more stringent interpretation of the fire code,” he added.
Kinney said the issues stemming from a lack of passenger space in the terminal have been building up over the last couple of years. Enplanements, the number of people boarding commercial aircraft in Aspen, rose 17.6 percent from 2017 to 2018. For the first six months of 2019, enplanements were 6.3 percent higher than in the January-to-June period of 2018, he said.
At an ASE Vision meeting late Monday afternoon, Daniel Ortiz, the Aspen general manager for American Airlines, spoke of the overcrowding situation and how the terminal is inadequate to support airline operations during most of the winter and on many peak days during the summer.
Roughly, the airport handles 49 daily incoming commercial flights during winter’s peak and 20 in the summer peak, Kinney said. (Generally, an equal number of commercial lights depart the Aspen airport for other destinations on a daily basis.)
Kinney said there were some winter days when passengers had to wait outside of the terminal because of overcrowding. That hasn’t happened this summer.
“There’s fewer flights in the summer, and they are spaced out a little bit more,” he said. Still, the airport has been mighty busy over the last couple of months.
“We had one of the busiest Junes, if not the busiest June, on record,” Kinney said.
Bids for the short-term projects Kinney outlined to commissioners are expected to be reviewed in early September.