‘Regional’ jets off-limits at Eagle County airport
What’s in the sky?
• CRJ700 jet: A 70-seat jet that provides 95 percent of the commercial service to Aspen.
• Boeing 737: The workhorse of the American airline fleet carries about 120 people.
• Boeing 757: Now being phased out of airlines’ fleets, the fast, powerful plane carries about 180 people.
EAGLE COUNTY — When looking at airline service, there’s more at work than just the number of seats.
For instance, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport the past few years has had more available ski-season airline seats than the Eagle County Regional Airport. But how those seats are divided up is important, too.
The vast majority of commercial service to Aspen comes in on regional jets such as the Bombardier CRJ700, a smallish jet that carries about 60 people. Using those smaller jets gives airlines more flexibility in scheduling — several flights a day can be more convenient for travelers.
But one of the main reasons the smaller jets fly into Aspen is because the runway at Sardy Field isn’t big enough to handle larger aircraft. That means airlines can’t bring in planes such as the Boeing 737, one of the most-used planes in the domestic airline fleet.
The community in Aspen has more than once been asked to lengthen the runway, and the answer so far has been “no.” Air service supporters in the Aspen area are now publicizing a study about the future of air service to that resort. Part of that study again contemplates a longer runway.
PLENTY OF RUNWAY
The airport at Gypsum has just about the opposite problem. There’s plenty of runway for commercial aircraft, even some of the larger planes in the fleet. In fact, Eagle County for years has been served almost exclusively by the Boeing 757, a fast, powerful plane that carries nearly 200 passengers.
For a number of years, the 757 was the best plane to use in Eagle County because of its power. But the 757 hasn’t been built in a while and is being phased out of front-line service. Replacing the 757 is a modern version of the 737, one with enough motor to handle taking off from our high-elevation airport with enough power to get a full load of passengers and luggage easily over Red Hill in Gypsum.
Actually, the power problem isn’t just about taking off. Federal Aviation Administration regulations require commercial jets to be able to climb over Red Hill and return on just one engine. The reason seems obvious — aircraft engines sometimes fail.
“It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen,” Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said. “You can get a bird in an engine or have some kind of mechanical problem.”
The commercial jets using the Eagle County airport today have plenty of one-engine power to meet those requirements. Smaller commercial jets, such as the ones flying into Aspen, often don’t have the kind of power required for the maneuver.
Phillips said Aspen has a longer departure path, so the less-powerful jets can meet federal standards. But Red Hill is close, and tall.
While more, smaller jets from more markets seems like a way to build service, Phillips said those flights can be costly for airlines.
“When you have high fuel prices, you can’t price tickets high enough to pay for the flights,” Phillips said.
That, in turn, leads to airlines asking communities for revenue guarantees, something a local group, the EGE Air Alliance, is working to build here.
Until technology changes, though, the Eagle County airport will have to depend on larger planes.
Longtime local air-service consultant Kent Myers said there are markets Vail Resorts would like to serve that might be better served by smaller aircraft. But that’s going to take time.
Phillips said the answer is some combination of better aircraft performance and better, more precise technology for instrument landings.
The reality is that we may never see the smaller aircraft now in use bring guests to our airport. In a recent column in The Aspen Times, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock wrote that the CRJ700 is being retired and will be phased out of front-line use within a decade or so.
Myers said a newer, 100-passenger airliner is being developed now. Given advances in aviation technology, those new planes may well meet federal requirements.
Only time will tell.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.