SpaceJet

The Mitsubishi M100 SpaceJet, hailed as an example of the future of regional aircraft, has been identified by supporters and critics of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport redevelopment as a good fit for the local market. With a wingspan of 91.3 feet and 76 seats, it would comply with the air transportation facility’s current wingspan restrictions and also pilot scope clauses. Deliveries to commercial carriers are expected to commence in 2023.

Discussions surrounding the need for air-side improvements at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport regularly circle back to the issue of “scope clauses,” agreements between major airlines and the pilots’ trade unions that limit the size and number of aircraft that may be flown by the airlines’ regional affiliate.

The major airlines serving Aspen – United, Delta and American – all have scope clauses with their trade unions that generally cap the number of seats for regional jets (like the CRJ-700 employed locally by SkyWest Airlines) at 76 and set the maximum take-off weight at 86,000 pounds. In 2019, United reportedly began renegotiating its scope clause with the union after it became amendable in February. Delta’s agreement became amendable in December and American’s agreement will be amendable at the end of this year.

Whether those renegotiations will lead to what’s known as “scope relief,” one form of which would allow the airlines to fly aircraft with more than 76 seats into Aspen and other places served primarily by regional carriers, remains to be seen, according to Bill Tomcich, a private consultant and the community’s liaison to the three airlines currently serving the local airport. Scope clauses exist for a reason: Their goal is to protect union jobs from being outsourced by limiting regional airline passenger capacity.

The scope clause “will determine ultimately the future fleet that is going to be flown by the regional carriers,” Tomcich said. Currently, there is a “significant fleet gap,” he said, meaning there are few commercial aircraft being flown in the United States that have between 76 seats, the maximum capacity for regional aircraft, and 126/128 seats, the smallest capacity for mainline aircraft flown by pilots working directly for the large commercial carriers such as United (Boeing 737-700) and American (Airbus A319).

“Between 76 and 126/128 seats, there are almost no aircraft in the United States today, with the exception of the new Airbus A220s, that are now being flown by Delta, configured for 109 seats and just introduced in early 2019,” Tomcich said.

Driving the airport redevelopment discussion, and providing the impetus for the county’s community input process started in early 2019 known as “ASE Vision,” is the expected retirement of the CRJ-700 fleet, depending on the airline, sometime in the next two to 15 years. The next generation of aircraft with the ability to serve the Aspen market is likely to have a wingspan greater than 95 feet, which is the current limitation on planes operating locally.

In early December, the Technical Working Group of the ASE Vision process – Tomcich served on that entity, one of four subcommittees tasked with coming up with recommendations for the overarching ASE Vision committee – issued its conclusion that the local airport should become a full-fledged Aircraft Design Group III facility, which would mean widening runways and taxiways. ADG III airports can allow aircraft with wingspans of up to 118 feet, a size that elicits fear in some members of the community with no-growth sentiments. Simply put, they don’t want bigger planes with larger seating capacities flying into and out of the Aspen airport, citing the potential impacts related to air quality, noise, safety and the perceived small-town character of the local community.

In late December, five members of another ASE Vision subcommittee, the Community Character Working Group, met to address the recommendation of the Technical Working Group. The community character subcommittee sought to determine whether the technical subcommittee looked at air-side improvement questions through the “community character lens.” Their subsequent report, characterized as a “final report” by some members and an “addendum” by others (after eight months of meetings, the community character group had trouble reaching consensus on a number of issues), addressed the scope-clause topic.

“The [technical group’s] recommendations are inconsistent with the [community character group’s] recommendation that the county maintain service with scope-compliant aircraft as long as possible, which are required to have 76 or fewer seats,” the addendum says.

The report continues by suggesting that there has only been “superficial analysis” of planes with 76 or fewer seats that could continue to serve the local airport, such as the newly announced Mitsubishi M100 SpaceJet, a scope-compliant jet that would comply with the 95-foot wingspan restriction, eliminating the need for wider runways and taxiways cited by expansion supporters. “While this aircraft is a prototype, the specifications for it are available and could have been addressed,” the report states.

For its part, the technical group did not formally vote on a preferred design aircraft; throughout the ASE Vision process, officials have pointed out that the airlines decide what types of planes will fly into any given market and the community cannot mandate the deployment of one type of aircraft or another. The technical group, in its final report, said its members reached consensus around three aircraft: the Airbus A220-100, which contains 109 seats; the Embraer E-175-E2 (80 seats) and its close cousin, the E-190-E2 (97 seats); and the Mitsubishi M100 SpaceJet (76 or fewer seats). But, the Airbus A220-100 and the Embraer E-175/190 are not scope compliant and the airlines would currently, under the scope clauses, have to use the higher-paid mainline pilots to fly them into regional markets.

“Next generation of small narrow-body aircraft are quieter, use less fuel per passenger and will likely require fewer operations to meet market demands,” the technical group’s report says.

While serving as a co-presenter on behalf of the technical group during a meeting of all subcommittee members in December, Tomcich placed a crystal ball on the podium to underscore all of the unknown variables surrounding the decision-making process on airport redevelopment. Earlier this week, he reiterated that point.

“There’s definitely some uncertainty relating to what’s going to happen with pilot scope, there’s uncertainty as to what’s going to happen with fleet decisions by the major airlines, and the two of them are inter-related,” he said. “What happens with pilot scope will probably have an impact on what happens with future fleet decisions by United, American and Delta, specifically.”

Tomcich disputes the contention by some redevelopment detractors that the CRJ-700s will be in use by regional carriers through at least 2039. “That’s a timeline that seems to have been embellished,” he said.

He noted that market dynamics also dictate what planes will serve the Aspen airport in the future. While critics of airport expansion have envisioned mainline aircraft such as large Boeing 737s rumbling over Aspen skies, he suggested that the regional aircraft operators have better operating costs using smaller aircraft flown by regional pilots that aren’t paid as much as mainline aircraft pilots. “That’s the reason you don’t see very many small mainline aircraft being flown by mainline pilots today, with a few exceptions,” Tomcich said.

In his view, the best-case scenario for the local airport and the community – one that follows a middle path – would start with runway improvements that bring the facility into full ADG-III compliance (accommodating planes with wingspans of up to 118 feet). All three commercial airlines serving Aspen would employ the next generation of jets that are more fuel-efficient and less noisy.

“Even better yet, we would have some smaller aircraft, such as the Mitsubishi M100 SpaceJet, if it does come to fruition,” he said. “In an ideal scenario, we would have a mix of different aircraft types, from 70 up to 109 seats, that could be flown by a variety of different mainline and regional aircraft operators.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.