The questions and concerns about whether Boeing 737s are the future of Aspen’s air service just won’t go away.
Comments about 737s flying into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport came up several times Thursday night during the last meeting of the five committees that have been participating in the ASE Vision process, a county initiative to let the community weigh in on potential upgrades to the facility’s terminal and runway.
Presenting the final recommendations of the Technical Working Group, Bill Tomcich, a private consultant and the community’s liaison to the three airlines currently serving Aspen, cast extreme doubt on the prospect of 737s being used locally.
“We believe, and it’s actually in the report that will be finalized here soon, that the likelihood of a 737 mainline or an Airbus-type aircraft being the dominant aircraft on a year-round basis is highly unlikely,” Tomcich said. “In fact, we have some facts that support that, because the market simply will not support 126- or 128-passenger aircraft 12 months of the year from all the markets that the airlines currently fly from. Our market just isn’t that big.”
Tomcich added there are certain times during the winter tourism season in which demand for flights to Aspen from certain cities “could certainly sustain larger aircraft” than the CRJ-700s — the 70-seat regional jets that currently serve the Aspen airport on behalf of commercial airlines United, Delta and American. A primary point in the discussion about the need to widen the local airport’s runway and build a larger terminal is that the CRJ-700s, one of few aircraft models that can handle the mountainous terrain surrounding Sardy Field, will be phased out of service within the next 20 years.
The technical committee analyzed various aircraft models that might be a good fit for the local airport in the years following the retirement of the CRJ-700s owned and operated by regional service provider Skywest Airlines on behalf of the three commercial airline giants. All of the new-generation models are quieter and more fuel efficient than the CRJ-700, and all have wingspans larger than the current 95-foot limit the county placed upon its airport.
The crux of the technical committee’s report is that the local airport must transition into a true Airplane Design Group III facility as classified by the Federal Aviation Administration. The local airport, which is known by its industry code ASE, has “nonstandard conditions” under its ADG-III designation relating to wingspan and the distance between its runway and taxiway. ADG-III designations allow operations of aircraft with up to a 118-foot wingspan, which would accommodate many 737 models, past, present and future. But officials have suggested that the 737 is a heavy plane that cannot handle the unique conditions involved in flying into and out of Aspen on a consistent basis.
Some members of the various ASE committees, speaking at Thursday night’s meeting in order to provide minority opinions, expressed regret over the initiative to upgrade and improve the local airport, citing negative impacts relating to growth.
One speaker said that with a runway expansion, larger terminal and intermodal ground-transportation facility (a recommendation from the Focus Group), Aspen’s small-town air facility would essentially become a “hub” for major airlines. The price tag for the proposed airside improvements and terminal expansion has been estimated at up to $500 million, depending on the extent of the projects.
One speaker said he feared the prospect of three planes landing in the span of a few minutes, each with 100 to 120 passengers. Three-hundred to 400 people arriving to town at the same time would have an extreme impact on the community, he said.
But Tomcich noted that before the introduction of the CRJ-100 to the Aspen market in 2006, the airport was served for 17 years by the BAE 146-300, which was configured for 100 seats.
There was a massive local debate over 737s in 1995, Tomcich’s first year as a local resident.
“I have vivid memories of what happened [then], and that was driven largely by shock and need for immediate change in the wake of losing [Continental Airlines] just less than a year earlier,” he said. “One of the best snow years ever was the 1994-95 ski season, and skier days and visitors were way down because we didn’t have the capacity at our airport to accommodate the demand.”
Another issue that came up Thursday during a presentation by a different committee, the Airport Experience Working Group, was how many gates should be included in a new terminal.
The experience committee approved a motion to recommend eight gates, but said the facility’s design should incorporate expansion beyond that number. The committee also recommended that the new terminal employ “jet bridges” in lieu of the current system in which travelers must walk out on the tarmac to board a flight. The airport currently has seven gates.
With the work by the four working subcommittees completed, the process now falls under the purview of the overarching ASE Vision Committee, which will take all of the recommendations under consideration as it meets several times in January and February.
The Vision Committee will then develop recommendations to be presented to the Board of County Commissioners, the ultimate deciders of the airport’s expansion plans.