During a Tuesday night gathering of the Maroon Creek Caucus, Aspen Skiing Co. executives attempted to dispel rumors that the company intends to throw its full weight behind an Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway and terminal project that will accommodate larger aircraft typically associated with big-city airports.
“When I hear that there is some concern that the ski company is licking their chops to get 737s flying in here because they’re going to go with a volume strategy … it’s just not true. It’s not who we are, it’s not how we’re wired, it’s not how we do business,” Mike Kaplan, SkiCo president and CEO, said. “And, I think it would be a flawed business strategy because we’d be competing against other resorts, which I won’t name, on their terms.”
The caucus has taken no position on airport upgrades, which could carry a final price tag of $400 million, with perhaps $150 million covered by federal grants. Pitkin County and the airport are embarking on a public outreach effort in which volunteer committees will gather information and discuss the potential vision, development, design and construction of the project. That process, which could take up to a year, is expected to begin next month, and will include input from the general public to the committees.
The Federal Aviation Administration in July approved the final environmental assessment for the airport’s proposed runway and terminal improvement projects, finding that there would be “no significant impact” to the environment from redevelopment. The FAA’s notice, according to airport officials, clears the airport to shift its runway 80 feet to the west, widen it up to 150 feet and strengthen it to allow up to 150,000 pounds of landing weight.
Officials contend that an expanded runway is needed to usher in a new generation of jets with wider wingspans that will replace the smaller planes currently landing at the airport, which currently restricts aircraft with wingspans greater than 95 feet.
Three carriers, United, American and Delta, use Bombardier CRJ700s that are expected to be phased out in 10 to 12 years. The CRJ700s are regional jets that typically seat a maximum of 70 passengers. Kaplan said the current service provided by the airport and the airlines flying CRJ700s works well for the skiing company, but changes at the airport will be necessary to maintain service levels.
“If the CRJ was going to stay in service for the foreseeable future, we’d be happy with that,” he said. “Unfortunately, the CRJ is going away, and the next generation of regional jets has a wingspan that’s wider than 95 feet. …To be able to handle this next generation of regional aircraft, we need to deal with that wingspan restriction.”
The next generation of regional jets to serve Aspen is expected to be more efficient, Kaplan said. He also said that moving toward larger aircraft while cutting down on the frequency of flights would not be good for the company’s business model.
“We’re concerned about that because the connections are so important, especially the international connections because 25 percent of our business is international,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have that high level of frequency.”
Some caucus members and others who attended the meeting expressed skepticism over statements that the company wants to maintain current service levels amid a possible expansion project that would accommodate larger aircraft.
Kaplan said the company has no set formula for future growth. He said he hopes that the community respects next year’s public outreach effort to determine how the project proceeds. He reiterated that SkiCo won’t advocate for the biggest planes possible during the upcoming committee sessions.
“I think I’ve said that, but I want to say again, unequivocally, we want the plane that will last into the future so that commercial air service remains viable,” Kaplan said.
Michael Miracle, SkiCo director of community engagement, said the company has no strategy for how it will participate in the outreach process. SkiCo will engage in the committee sessions in a manner like the other 100 or so volunteers who have signed up to participate, he said.
Miracle drew a parallel between the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s future plans and those of the airport. Voters in November approved a new, dedicated property tax for RFTA that’s designed to generate enough revenue to allow the regional bus-transit provider to upgrade its fleet and expand services over the next few decades.
“RFTA’s moving to slightly bigger buses, they’re more efficient, they hold more people, they’re quieter and more efficient … and the community seems to be pretty happy about that,” Miracle said. “This [airport project] is not so radically different from that. RFTA can’t keep driving the same buses forever and planes are kind of like flying buses. They’re really analogous, the two processes that have unfolded.”
Local real estate broker Tim Mooney expressed doubts over the perceived need for the airport project. He asked whether SkiCo has considered a future in which more visitors are ferried to Aspen by bus after flying into regional airports in Grand Junction and Eagle.
Mooney asked the SkiCo executives if they would go on the record in support of marketing efforts aimed at bringing visitors through other airports and busing them into the Aspen area.
“Why would we want to do that to our customers?” Miracle asked.
“Why would we want to do this to our locals?” Mooney replied.
Former Sheriff Bob Braudis also spoke up, saying that predictions of what will happen in the airline industry and with aircraft five or 10 years from now “is crystal ball stuff.”
“I think the ski company would be well advised to do what I’m doing now – listening,” Braudis said.