Aspen airport runway extension inches forward |

Aspen airport runway extension inches forward

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Vail, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Depending on the availability of federal funding, the $17.5 million extension of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway could occur as soon as next year.

The project, some five years in planning and analysis, took another step closer to reality Wednesday with a sparsely attended public hearing on a draft environmental assessment. The document concludes the runway extension will allow airlines to fill more seats without overtaxing the resort’s ability to accommodate additional visitors.

The comment period on the assessment, or EA, concludes May 24. Federal Aviation Administration and Pitkin County approvals could come this summer; a June 23 public hearing on the project is scheduled before county commissioners.

The runway would be extended from roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet on its south end, allowing the types of commercial jets that currently serve the airport to fill more seats with passengers without bumping up against weight restrictions. At present, especially when summer temperatures exceed a certain level, planes can’t take off fully loaded with fuel, passengers and baggage, so seats the airlines might otherwise be able to sell are left empty. The extra 1,000 feet provides added takeoff room, easing the weight issue.

“We’re looking at the same number of operations; we’re just adding people to those aircraft [who] can’t get on them now,” explained Ryk Dunkelberg of the Tulsa firm that conducted the research for the EA.

Even during the winter months, weight restrictions can come into play. Between March 2008 and February 2009, roughly 12,000 seats were purposely left empty, according to the report.

“These are seats they don’t even put up for sale,” Dunkelberg said.

Easing the weight restrictions could open up Aspen to some longer-distance direct flights in the summer months, according to Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry.

“It might open the door to Chicago in the summertime,” he said.

Atlanta might also be possible – that would take some study, Tomcich said.

The longer runway would not accommodate bigger commercial jets – the 95-foot wingspan and 100,000-pound weight cap on the runway would remain.

The consultants analyzed the “bang for the buck” with both 800- and 1,000-foot extensions before the airport settled on the longer extension as its preference.

The $15 million, 800-foot extension would result in an estimated 21,689 additional available seats per year by 2027, though there isn’t the anticipated demand to actually sell them all. With 1,000 feet for $17.5 million, the extra available seats per year jumps to 27,332 by 2027. Again, there isn’t an anticipated demand for all of those seats; though planes would presumably fill up during certain peak periods.

“You get a greater value for your overall cost with 1,000 feet,” Dunkelberg said.

The majority of the project will be paid for with federal funds; airport revenues will pay for the rest. No county debt is anticipated.

Among the impacts of the project documented in the EA are the need to cap wells on the south end of the airport that serve 77 homes in the Buttermilk Metropolitan District. Those homes will be connected to city of Aspen water service.

In addition, there will be a modest increase in “single-event” noise on the south end of the runway involving individual loud, private jets. The study found no difference in the cumulative average noise with the longer runway.

The draft EA can be viewed on the documents page of

Comments will be accepted online at through May 24. No members of the public offered comments at Wednesday’s hearing, where airport representatives and consultants made up the bulk of the attendees.

Support Local Journalism