Pitkin County OKs airport runway extension
July 15, 2010
ASPEN – Extension of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway won unanimous approval Wednesday from Pitkin County commissioners following a lengthy discussion of the project’s merits.
Commissioners concluded that adding another 1,000 feet on the south, or upvalley, end of the runway would improve the efficiency of commercial operations at the airport and could improve safety, as well.
They declined to hold off on a decision while running the project past the Public Safety Council, a group of 14 local agencies, despite Sheriff Bob Braudis saying that that step, though unusual, was missing. Land-use applications aren’t typically sent to the council for review.
“The thing that seems to be missing is a local safety study,” Braudis said.
“Bob’s right. It hasn’t come before the Public Safety Council,” said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson, chairman of the council. “I’m a little bit concerned about the disconnect.”
Later, he clarified that none of the representatives on the council brought the matter up. The issue is internal, not between the council and commissioners, Thompson said.
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The Federal Aviation Administration has thoroughly evaluated the extension from a safety standpoint, said John Bauer, airport district office manager for the agency in Denver. The only issue that arose in its review was the line of sight from the airport tower to the end of the longer runway, he said. It is being addressed with the installation of closed-circuit cameras rather than a higher tower. The necessary tower would be roughly three times as high as the existing one.
The added length will not mean airplanes that circle town to land from the south will come in any lower or land on the extended runway, he said. The extra room is meant for takeoffs only, except in an emergency, Bauer said.
Several pilots told commissioners a longer runway will improve safety, while other citizens said the resort will benefit from the project if it means the airlines are able to fill more seats at times when weight restrictions now force them to leave seats empty.
Dave Faddis, director of safety for Skywest, which operates both the United Express and Delta service in Aspen, said the airline can’t carry out all of the passengers it brings in on a plane because of the restrictions that sometimes come into play.
“During the summer months, Aspen is a challenging airport. As temperatures rise, performance starts to degrade,” he said.
The lengthened runway, from roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet, would allow 244,000 passenger enplanements in 2012 – 15,016 more than would be possible with the same number of flights on the constrained runway, according to an analysis based on expected demand. The difference grows to more than 19,000 additional passengers by 2027, according to projections.
Those numbers were the subject of plenty of debate Wednesday.
Bruce Hansen, a former airline pilot and executive, contends consultants have come up with the numbers to justify the project.
“In the future, add on more flights and you’ve done the same thing as extending the runway,” he said. “Come up with a real reason to extend this runway. I haven’t heard one.”
“These numbers don’t mean anything. This is really misleading,” said Les Holst, also a former airline pilot.
Gordon Gerson, a West Buttermilk resident who lives near the airport, questioned the need for a longer runway to accommodate the regional jets that already serve Aspen.
“To me, this is the tail wagging the dog,” he said.
Ellen Anderson, the county’s emergency incident commander, reiterated her fear that the extension will increase the risk of an airplane crash at Buttermilk Ski Area, immediately south of the airport. Airport officials have said the project doesn’t change that risk one way or the other.
“If it’s going to make it safer for the people at the X Games, I’m all for it,” Anderson said.
County commissioners appeared to agree the extended runway will make some number of additional seats available on the commercial jets already flying out of Aspen. Some of them noted the project has been a matter of numerous hearings over the past two years, though some citizens have only recently voiced concerns. And, some commissioners balked at suggestions that approval was inevitable.
“I have never thought of this as a foregone conclusion,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley. “I think it satisfies the community’s needs, safety, prosperity and the future. That’s what we’re talking about here.”
“I don’t think any of us were sold on it from the get-go,” Commissioner Patti Kay-Clapper agreed.
A grant application for FAA funding for the project is due July 28. The FAA will fund 95 percent of the estimated $17.5 million project with money from taxes it collects on fuel, airfare and freight. The airport will fund the rest out of its revenues.
Before the project can proceed, however, the city of Aspen and Buttermilk Metropolitan District must reach an agreement to serve 77 nearby homes. Wells that currently serve the metro district, on the south end of the airport, will be capped as part of the project.
Commissioners also asked airport officials to look at ways to muffle noise at the south end of the runway, in deference to neighbors, and said that, even after the project’s approval, the Public Safety Council is welcome to review the plan and provide input.
Depending on the granting of funds, the project could be completed by the fall of 2011, according to Jim Elwood, airport director. No airport closure is anticipated during the work, though there may be some operational restrictions during construction.