An Aspen real estate agent and a longtime aviation expert, alarmed at Pitkin County officials’ statements about the possibility of jets as large as 737s landing at Sardy Field, are faulting the airport expansion planning process and may bring the issue to voters.
Debra Ritchie said she is in the process of drafting a citizen referendum about the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport plan, contending more people need to be aware of the massive impact that a change to the runway landing weight limit could have on the valley. She said she easily obtained over 150 signatures at a recent community picnic, and that the valley’s nine citizen caucuses are on board to sign the potential referendum.
She and Aspen resident Cliff Runge, who in the 1990s developed (and later sold) the airport’s fixed-base operation that provides fuel, hangaring and other aeronautical services, say there is no reason to construct a new runway that could increase the local landing weight to 150,000 pounds from 100,000.
“We’re going in the direction of no return for our valley,” Ritchie said. “If it is already a fait accompli and we’re just jumping up and down for our health, be honest about it.”
If approved, the runway project and the construction of a new terminal could cost nearly $400 million — federal grants are expected to contribute over $150 million to the runway — and would represent one of the largest infrastructure endeavors on the West Slope since routing Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon. Among other impacts, the airport could shut down for two straight months, likely in a shoulder season, or longer for construction that may accommodate larger jets, more visitors, and, paradoxically, possibly louder planes but fewer flights over Woody Creek, Burlingame and the Aspen Business Center.
But County Manager Jon Peacock and Airport Director John Kinney, in an interview last week, said such a runway weight limit for Aspen has not been decided. While an environmental assessment plan drafted for the Federal Aviation Administration — which was recently approved with a finding of no significant impact — included planes of up to 150,000 pounds, “there hasn’t been a commitment at this point to that weight limit,” Peacock said.
He called that weight limit a “maximum, worst-case” analysis of sorts to determine the environmental impact, and likened it to the large, place-holder size proposed to the FAA of a potential terminal of 140,000 square feet.
“But subsequently I believe you heard both John Kinney and myself talk about that it’s very unlikely that we would design a terminal building of that size,” he said. “But we wanted both the community and our board [of commissioners] to have the flexibility that you clear it for more than you’re anticipating.”
A new Sardy Field could ‘change the landscape of our valley’
Ritchie, who met with Peacock last month, said in a recent interview that she is far from convinced about the county’s stance. One point of division is the FAA pushing the airport to adhere to a safety standard delineating the width between the runway and taxiway.
But in trying to meet that rule, Pitkin County has gone farther, telling the feds that the local airstrip, reconfigured with a new runway with 150,000 pounds of landing capacity and a new terminal, could join a larger class of airports, Ritchie said.
Why are you asking for an airport that will “change the landscape of our valley?” she asked, adding that county officials are relying on a 4-year-old study that found Aspen, without the runway change, would see drastically reduced commercial service.
“Which is so ridiculous,” she said.
The runway can be shifted 80 feet to the west, as planned, to acquiesce to the FAA, but the landing strip doesn’t have to be torn up completely nor the land dug deeper to accommodate a landing weight that would allow 737s, she said.
She and Runge have reached out to at least one aircraft manufacturer, Embraer, of a roughly 70-seat plane called the E175, similar to what now serves Aspen, and a representative said they “have done most of the technical analysis for the E175 to operate into and out of Aspen airport,” says the email Runge provided to the Daily News. “We hope to see in the near future a U.S. regional airline to start operating the E175 into Aspen.”
Runge said county officials “promised over and over and over again that they would never increase the gross-weight” landing capacity of the runway.
“It’s the gross-weight increase that’s the killer in this deal,” he said. “When you increase the runway strength to from 100,000 to 150,000 pounds, you open up an entirely different field and an entirely different class of airplanes.”
Combined with a new terminal possibly as large as 80,000 square feet — Runge noted the Glenwood Wal-Mart is 100,000 square feet — it would “totally change the nature of our airport. In fact, it becomes similar to the Eagle airport in most of its aspects.”
Peacock and Kinney said the analysis and community discussion will certainly involve new types of smaller jets coming on line capable of serving Aspen. But they noted that the FAA prohibits designing an airport to preclude a specific type of aircraft.
“That would be a violation of the grant assurances that the county has given the FAA for decades,” Peacock said. “You’re not allowed to discriminate against a specific class of aircraft. However, the intended fleet mix that is most likely to serve your airport is really what you end up building the runway to. That would be the determining factor in terms of what that final weight limit for the runway is going to be.”
But that’s the crux of Ritchie’s potential ballot question to voters: “Shall the county accept funds from the FAA that would require us to bring in these larger jets like the 737? That’s the referendum question,” she said.
Ritchie, noting she and her husband are real estate agents, said they are “not against growth, but we want healthy growth, growth that’s not going to ruin our town but will enhance our town,” she said. “That’s why we got involved.”
Kinney, the airport director, said the FAA is accustomed to residents, regardless of region, wanting to maintain control of their airport, “which makes total sense.
“But it’s a system, and they want to make it very uniform,” he said. “And all of their design standards are based on wingspans and separation geometry, more so than the weight component.”
More specifically, “whenever you take an FAA grant, you’re obligated for those grant assurances that you will maintain and operate that airport to the FAA standards for 20 years,” he said. “So we actually have a clock ticking [based on a federal grant received last year] and are now obligated to operate and maintain this airport for the next 20 years to the FAA standard.
“Even if we didn’t take the FAA monies to do the runway, we’re still obligated for that 20-year cycle to operate the airport, design the airport and maintain the airport.”
After the environmental assessment, “now the real work begins,” Peacock said.
“We’re at the beginning of the process, not the end of the process. Before we put pencil to paper on actually doing a design on an option, we’re going to be talking to the community again about, ‘What do you want this to be for the customer experience coming into Aspen and Snowmass?’ How can we best develop the infrastructure in a way that provides that experience, but also reflects our unique community character? We’re going to have that conversation again before we put pencil to paper on any design.”
Asked if whether just relocating the runway to the west, to assuage the feds’ taxiway-runway concerns, and widening it but without the 150,000-pound landing weight, Peacock said, “We don’t know that yet.”
Having finalized the environmental assessment to the satisfaction of the feds, county officials will now “engage in a really robust public process around all of these questions,” Peacock said. “We think that the community might be better served, frankly, by our intent now to really ramp up a robust community engagement process to answer a lot of these questions.
“We don’t have to, right now, touch the runway. But we think there are some consequences for the community if we do not do that, in terms of how commercial air service is going to be provided in the future.”