Landing

A United Airlines regional jet lands at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Wednesday afternoon. The local airport does not allow commercial or general-aviation aircraft with a wingspan over 95 feet, but an ASE Vision subcommittee recommends that the restriction should be removed to accommodate a new generation of jets.

The ASE Vision Technical Working Group’s recommendations for future airside improvements at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport include a runway widening that will accommodate aircraft with wingspans of up to 118 feet, a 23-foot increase from the current limitation of 95 feet.

While the upgrade to allow planes with up to a 118-foot wingspan may unnerve those who fear their local airport will soon feature regular landings of Boeing 737s with a 117-foot wingspan and a carrying capacity of 126 passengers or more, the technical group’s report suggests that such a scenario is extremely unlikely.

“It is recognized that if the wingspan restriction at ASE is increased to 118 [feet], this would allow certain high performance mainline and some larger [general aviation] aircraft to operate at ASE,” the report states. “Based on the current forecast, it appears that market conditions are such that it is unlikely that an airline would choose to operate mainline aircraft into ASE exclusively without also being able to offer a smaller regional aircraft for the majority of their flights to allow for schedule diversity, connectivity and continuity of year-round service into ASE.”

The committee’s report is expected to highlight tonight’s gathering of all five groups that are participating in the ASE Vision process, a yearlong effort designed to allow the community to decide how best to proceed with terminal and runway improvements that airport officials and other supporters believe to be necessary. Tonight’s meeting, set for 4-7 p.m. at the Doerr-Hosier Building at the Aspen Meadows, is the last full group meeting of the year under the initiative. More than 120 area residents signed on to participate on the five committees — four subcommittees and an overarching committee — which began their work in February. 

In addition to the technical group’s presentation by Chris Bendon, a local planner and former city of Aspen community development director, and Bill Tomcich, the community’s liaison to the commercial airlines that serve the airport, two other subcommittees will be issuing their final recommendations as well. The Community Character group already has presented its report, which suggests that the airport proceed with plans for a new terminal but hold off on airside improvements until more research can be conducted on the airport’s impacts on the community, especially those related to air, noise and light pollution. 

In January and February of 2020, the recommendations from the four subcommittees will be taken under advisement by the overarching Vision Committee, which in the spring is expected to submit formal recommendations to Pitkin County commissioners about how best to proceed with airside and terminal improvements. Depending on the extent of the projects, the price tag could end up totaling up to $500 million, but the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to pay the lion’s share of the cost for airside upgrades.

The technical group report, finalized and approved by about a dozen committee members during a Tuesday night meeting at the Airport Operations Center off Owl Creek Road, touches on a wide array of topics, including the facility’s operational and safety history; the availability of commercial aircraft that have the ability to serve the local airport, now and in the future; mitigation options relating to greenhouse-gas emissions; the relationship between community character concerns and the airport’s future technical needs; and other matters.

But at the heart of the report is the recommendation to do away with “nonstandard conditions” that the county has applied to the local airport, which falls under the FAA’s Airplane Design Group III classification. Such conditions include the local 95-foot wingspan limit and the 320-foot separation between the taxiway and the runway. ADG III airports allow for wingspans up to 118 feet and 400-foot separations.

The primary recommendation from the technical group states: “The risks associated with the uncertainty of any future aircraft with wingspans of 95 feet or less actually being able to operate at ASE — and the likely degradation of commercial air service into ASE — is more consequential than the undesired impacts of the possible introduction of some mainline aircraft.” 

Mainline aircraft, as noted by committee members on Tuesday, relates to larger planes with greater seating capacity than the regional 70-seat CRJ-700s that commercial airlines United, Delta and American use to serve the Aspen market through their partner, regional flight operator Skywest Airlines. Officials say the CRJ-700s, introduced locally in 2006 and capable of handling the mountainous terrain surrounding the airport, are being phased out and will likely be retired from service over the next two to 20 years — a factor that is weighing heavily on the local push to make runway improvements.

“The [committee] recommends moving forward with removing the nonstandard conditions at ASE and building an ADG-III airfield that fully complies with ADG-III separation standards,” the report adds.

Though the commercial airline industry decides which planes it will fly into any airport, the technical group studied “preferred design aircraft” that could serve the Aspen airport in the years to come. The report lists the Airbus A220-100; the Mitsubishi M100 Space Jet, which is not yet under production; and the family of Embraer E-Jet E-2s.

They are among the next generation of small, narrow-body aircraft that are considerably quieter than the CRJ-700, the report says. They use less fuel per passenger and, given a greater seating capacity in most instances, will likely require fewer operations to meet local market demands.

“All these new generation … jets have similar [seating] capacity to those aircraft that operated at ASE prior to when the CRJ-700 was introduced in 2006,” the report states, referring to the BAE 146-300, which had 100 seats and operated in Aspen from 1988-2005, as well as other aircraft with passenger capacity of 86 seats or more.

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