Airport board recommends runway shift to save time, money

Accounting for feedback from the FAA and congressional representatives, the airport seems likely to return to a runway shift for the Airport Layout Plan. The Pitkin County Board of Commissioners will have the final say.
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport/Courtesy image

In a 6-1 vote, the Airport Advisory Board approved amending the Airport Layout Plan (ALP) to shift the runway instead of the taxiway, potentially saving the airport millions of dollars.

An ALP is a planning document necessary to secure federal funding. The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has been working on a new ALP for years as the community grapples with priorities for the airport and the need to update the airport terminal.

The reversal is intended to save the airport time and money as it races the clock against rapidly failing runway infrastructure and soon-to-expire federal funds for airport renovations and repairs.

The board’s recommendation of the Alternative ALP will head to the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, with more opportunity for public comment. The exact date was not clear at Thursday’s meeting.

“The risk of not bringing in planes with wider wings — and I don’t want to call them bigger because they’re not bigger; they have wider, lighter wings,” said Airport Advisory Board Chair Jacquelyn Francis, whose day job is running a global non-profit that works in decarbonization. “I would like to see more efficient planes. I would like them to be quieter. I think we have to go with the (Alternative ALP) to make that happen.”

The need to consider switching back to a runway shift came about after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave feedback on the Common Ground Recommendations (CGR) ALP that the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, Pitkin County, and aviation consultant firm Jacobsen Daniels recently presented to the FAA. 

The CGR ALP incorporated much of the community goals and guidelines from the Common Ground Recommendations — a product of the county commissioner-formed Visioning Committee.

But, if the airport were to pursue shifting the taxiway by 80 feet east (CGR ALP) instead of shifting the runway 80 feet west (Alternative ALP), the FAA said certain things would have to happen.

The biggest piece was the need to relocate the Air Traffic Control Tower on the airport’s dime, as moving the taxiway east and prompting a new tower construction and relocation would be the county’s choice. Pitkin County is the sponsor of the airport.

Construction alone would cost more than $100 million, said Brad Jacobsen of Jacobsen Daniels, plus the cost of relocation studies and environmental analyses. It would also likely be relocated northeast of the tower, standing 100 feet tall on the opposite side of Hwy 82. It is currently 37 feet tall.

He said the difference between the CGR ALP and the newly-proposed Alternative ALP is minimal. The Alternative ALP incorporates all of the Common Ground Recommendations – apart from the taxiway shift.

These recommendations called for a taxiway shift to save money on runway reconstruction and reduce carbon footprint. Those points are moot now that the runway absolutely must be reconstructed due to subsurface issues. The location of the runway does not significantly affect cost, he said.   

If the airport is made to assume any costs – from the FAA mandating it fund its own runway repair or the county choosing to relocate the tower – Airport Director Dan Bartholomew said that would impact the airport’s ability to fulfill other goals like renovating the terminal to be climate-friendly or expanding intermodal transportation.  

As an arm of the federal government, the FAA has the power to force the airport to foot the bill for a runway repair if a plan cannot be decided before the runway fails.

“You can’t just let the runway fall apart; that’s not going to be acceptable,” said Jacobsen. “And in that case, (the FAA) will come in, and they’ll rebuild your runway for you. And hand you a bill.”

He estimated that getting the airport to a construction start date would take only about a year if the airport pursues the Alternative ALP with the runway shift. If they chose to stick with the CGR ALP (the taxiway shift option) getting to a construction date would take at least two years.

Environmental reviews have already taken place for much of the Alternative ALP and cut down on that timeline significantly, though some facets of the plan would have to submit to further evaluation. Shifting the taxiway, however, has not seen any environmental review, and Jacobsen said that could take months.

Public feedback

Some public comments at the meeting echoed longstanding critiques of the ALP process that widening the taxiway/runway separation to allow the full breadth of Airport Design Group III aircraft at the airport, with aircraft wingspan limited at 95 feet to 118 feet, would welcome “bigger, dirtier” aircraft.

Amory Lovins, head of the citizen group Aspen Fly Right, pointed to his organization’s analysis that concluded the airport would save money if the county chose to forego federal grant funding and take over the Fixed Base Operator. 

“I don’t have answers for everything that’s been discussed. There are some very smart people in this room with a lot more data and understanding,” said Chuck Butler of the new organization Citizens Against Bigger Planes, which released a press release on Thursday stating 57% of Pitkin County voters would vote against runway expansion. “But I do think the people in this community, it’s their airport, this is our airport. And whether it’s about growth, health, safety environment, whatever it is, I think the people should have the ultimate say.”

Bill Tomcich, an aviation consultant who regularly works with airlines and Aspen-area organizations, pushed back on the “bigger, dirtier” aircraft narrative.

‘I’ve been trying to see where are all these other large private aircraft. If they’re not allowed to fly into Aspen, where are they flying into? There aren’t that many flying into Eagle,” he said. “A lot of these newer, larger business jets are absolutely a lot quieter, including the Gulfstream 650.”

A few local pilots expressed some concerns over general (private) aviation plans and volunteered themselves to work with the airport and Jacobsen Daniels to iron out details in the future.

Of the Airport Advisory Board, Jacque Francis, Meg Haynes, Michael Solonz, Auden Schendler, Howie Mallory, and Bruce Gordon — albeit begrudgingly, he said — all voted in favor of recommending the Alternative ALP of shifting the runway to the BOCC. Valerie Braun was the sole vote against, still expressing regret over the need to widen the runway/taxiway separation. 

“I think we’ve done everything we can to try and make a bigger airport fit into a smaller space,” she said. “And I just find that very hard to believe that there’s not some common sense.”

Clint Kinney, a non-voting member of the board, pushed back.

“I think we have a clearer understanding of how we got here, and I think that the (Alternative ALP) is that common sense,” he said.

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