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Aspen runway extension pitched as economic boost

Scott CondonThe Aspen Times

ASPEN – Pitkin County’s plan to extend the Aspen airport runway won’t attract larger aircraft but it could pump millions of dollars into the economy each year by filling more seats on existing flights, officials said Tuesday.Director of Aviation Jim Elwood and consultant Ryk Dunkelberg walked a tightrope while discussing the runway extension’s potential growth effects with the Pitkin County commissioners. It’s a touchy subject. Pitkin County residents voted in the early 1990s against allowing runway work that would have allowed larger aircraft to land at Sardy Field.The county is working on a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet but not strengthen it. The county is seeking an FAA grant for the $15 million project.Elwood told the commissioners Tuesday that extending the runway won’t be a “growth generator.” The runway will still have the same weight limits that exist now, which prohibit larger aircraft with greater seating capacity from landing at Sardy Field.But Dunkelberg said the extension will allow more efficient use of existing flights. Currently, commercial aircraft departing Aspen face occasional weight issues. During the summer, they cannot exceed a certain weight when the temperature tops 80 degrees. In the winter, large amounts of baggage brought by passengers sometimes forces carriers to undersell flights to meet the weight restriction.A longer runway would ease the challenges presented by the weight restrictions as aircraft could take off with bigger payloads.SkyWest, which operates service for United Express and Delta, said it didn’t sell 9,575 seats on existing flights in 2006 even though there was a demand, Dunkelberg said. He stressed that those were seats that consumers wanted to purchase, but the air carriers couldn’t sell because of the weight restrictions.”We’ve got demand. We have passengers on the ground,” he said.Dunkelberg said not every flight would be full even if weight wasn’t an issue. The average “load factor,” or percentage of sold seats, hovers around an average of 70 percent for flights in and out of Aspen.If all the demand could be met on flights, it would add between $20 million and $40 million annually to the Aspen-Snowmass economy between now and the year 2017, according to Dunkelberg.Those figures are based on a study by the Colorado Commission of Aeronautics that surveyed average spending by airline passengers that visited a community, Dunkelberg said. The survey found that the average visitor to Aspen coming in by air spends about $2,000 per trip.The number of seats that cannot be sold because of weight restrictions is expected to increase from the current level of about 10,000 annually to nearly 20,000 by 2017, according to the team at Dunkelberg’s consulting firm, Barnard Dunkelberg & Co.Lengthening the runway and filling all the demand for seats would produce an economic boost without increasing the need for more tourist accommodation and services, according to preliminary results of an environmental assessment being performed on the runway extension. The Federal Aviation Administration is requiring the study.The county commissioners didn’t question the figures presented to them Tuesday. However, some members of the Citizens Input Committee have reportedly been more skeptical of the math. The committee has periodically met with the airport staff and consulting team over the last year to discuss issues surrounding the proposed extension. The committee members were appointed by the county commissioners.Some committee members have questioned if there was really demand for 9,575 seats that couldn’t be filled in 2006 because of weight restrictions. Critics of the numbers suspect that the weight restrictions affect only a few seats, mostly in summer afternoons – leaving significantly fewer than 9,575 seats unsold.The public will get a chance later this year to dig further into the statistics. The draft environmental assessment is scheduled to be released in November or December, and public hearings will be held.scondon@aspentimes.com


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