As the debate on the future of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport continues, local nonprofit Aspen Fly Right is urging a prioritization of new aviation technology before committing to expensive and potentially outdated changes.
In a community meeting Monday night at the Pitkin County Library, Amory Lovins, president of the nonprofit, suggested that inbound developments in electric and hybrid planes may pose a solution to many of the topics of discussion such as aircraft size, capacity, noise and public safety.
A major component of Lovins’ argument is that a new wave of aviation technology is not far off, prompting a paradigm shift in what requirements and restrictions for airstrips will look like. He said his research suggests that such changes are more imminent than the timeframe in which a new airside — runways, taxiways, etc. — could be completed, making any changes to the airfield obsolete before it could be used.
He suggested that electric models are quieter, more ecofriendly and do not see the size increase that typical fuel-dependent models are undergoing, which is predicating the discussions around airside projects to accommodate larger aircraft.
“Airlines, including the three that run here, are substantially invested in the new electric plane industry,” Lovins said. “I think we can crush our environmental goals without rebuilding the airside if we’re patient and let the innovators do their work, save the airside cost and use it to fix the landside.”
In a graph, he projected some small battery-electric aircraft to be ready for rollout as soon as next year, with more significantly sized, hydrogen-fueled planes to hit the market in 2026.
For years, the county’s stated reason for promoting airside redevelopment at the local airport has been the need to accommodate next-generation aircraft with greater wingspans. Airport redevelopment proponents say the CRJ-700, which is currently used by commercial airlines in the Aspen market, will be phased out over the next decade.
Lovins did not speak to the question of whether private plane owners would be willing to update to aircraft with renewable technologies.
Joining Lovins in the discussion was Airport Advisory Board Chair Jacque Francis, who said the board is bringing in experts in the near future to discuss renewable fuels, upcoming changes to commercial airline fleet mixes and other topics. She said a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration is due in the next month and the advisory board is seeking input from the public on what questions to ask them.
Aspen Fly Right anticipates releasing an essay on air pollutants data on Thursday, something Lovins said is sparse. The group worked with third parties to measure air pollutants at the base of Buttermilk, which sits directly downwind from the airport, in the direction of jet exhaust.
The data collected is measured at three different points to try to differentiate jet exhaust from standard traffic emissions from Highway 82. He said that while the information is still being evaluated, he believes they can reliably distinguish between plane and traffic pollutants.
“Our essay on Thursday will include some limited results showing the air pollution around the front of the ski school is average at least on most days within long-term federal standards, but considerably exceeded them at times,” Lovins said. “Much of that pollution probably came from passing vehicles in the parking lot and on Highway 82, but there are several ways, contrary to what some think, to distinguish those sources from jet exhaust.
“We think we probably did observe this distinctive signature of a traveling pollution pulse despite meandering winds and other distortions, but I’m not quite ready to say that definitively. We’re checking further to make sure that we’re properly correlating the three sites observed, spikes and matching them with actual airplane takeoffs. We will publish this and much further analysis as soon as we finish it.”
In the public discussion portion of the event, local pilot Walter Chi said that information on landing at ASE is not publicly available, opining for Aspen Fly Right and the advisory board to create some sort of readily-distributable language.
“We don’t have any of that anymore,” Chi said. “The Fly Right program doesn’t seem to educate these people unless they’re doing something wrong or doing something good. … They’re only getting a little diagram of the airport, how to descend. Not really where the mountains are or what’s ahead of them.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper gave some clarity on the process for upgrading the airport, saying that an airport layout plan has to be submitted to the FAA. All redevelopment plans have to be represennted in the document.
“Once it’s approved by the FAA you can build X, Y and Z or you can start with A and Z but you have to have a plan to get grants moved forward, funds to do anything,” Clapper said. “So that’s the process we’re in now.”