A Pitkin County commissioner suggested Tuesday that the federal government is wielding too much influence on how local decisions are being made for the future of the airport.
Michael Owsley, at a commissioners’ work session with Aspen-Pitkin County Airport Director John Kinney and a pair of aviation consultants, cast skepticism on plans to scale down a major airport-improvement project because of a lack of funding from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This is difficult for me. … These are significant changes for our community,” Owsley said. “They are Earth-shattering for our community. They are a small ripple in Washington, D.C.”
Owsley’s remarks came in advance of today’s decision by county commissioners to either reject or approve the airport’s revised layout plan and environmental-assessment process. Both steps are necessary for the project to move forward. The federal government would oversee the 12- to 18-month environmental assessment, which would focus on both the runway improvement and the new terminal.
Today’s decision became necessary after the county, citing a federal funding shortfall, announced last week it was shelving such projects as underground parking, a second fixed-base operator and a new taxiway on the airport’s west side. They remain part of the airport’s layout plan but are not under any consideration at this time, County Manager Jon Peacock said.
Moving forward, the focus now is on FAA-required improvements to the runway and the construction of a new terminal.
Owsley said he wanted better assurances that there won’t be future fiscal hurdles imposed by the FAA, but Peacock said the FAA won’t make those commitments in writing.
“In the absence of a grant letter for that specific commitment of funding for the project, we’re not able to give that to you in writing,” Peacock said. “We were able to meet with as many different agencies within the FAA and different decision-makers within the FAA to quality check our plans to make sure their realities haven’t changed since the last time we talked to them.”
Even so, Owsley said the FAA’s funding balk is hard to explain to residents whose lives are impacted by the decision.
“This is as a significant a construction project to our economy as any one project in the county, so that’s the difficulty I have — going back to the community saying, ‘Here’s what we have from FAA, which is nothing.’”
Commissioner Rachel Richards, however, noted the FAA is funding 90 percent of the scaled-down project when and if it gets off the ground. She also said too much is at stake — namely, the economic impact on Aspen if the airport loses commercial service due to its outdated facilities — to not move forward.
“I wouldn’t want to be in this room in 2022 when we hear there’s no aircraft,” Richards said.
Airport officials have cautioned that airlines are retiring their Bombardier-made CRJ700 regional jets, which serve the majority of Aspen’s commercial service. The phasing-out will begin in 2018 with the entire generation expected to be grounded by 2025.
The FAA has set the Aspen airport’s wingspan limitation at 95 feet; the CRJ700’s wingspan is 76 feet and 3 inches. The CRJ700 and the Q400, which once served Aspen, are the only commercial aircraft within that wingspan and capable of flying into and out of Sardy Field.
“Your service would evaporate is what would happen over time,” said J.D. Ingram of Denver-based Jviation, a planning and design firm enlisted by the county.
A new line of future regional jets are starting to come online, but their wingspans are larger, ranging from 95 feet to 115. Pending plans to widen the runway from 100 feet to 150 feet would allow airplanes with wingspans of no greater than 118 feet to land in Aspen.
Commissioner Steve Child asked if Boeing 737s would qualify, but nobody could directly answer the question.
“Does it have the performance to operate in out of Aspen? The answer is we don’t know,” said Kinney, noting they would find out during the environmental assessment. He said United Airlines has told the airport that its 737s aren’t capable of flying into Aspen.
Should the project move forward, the new terminal would be built by 2022, and the runway shift and widening in 2027.
The runway work would be done after the CRJ700 fleet is expected to be grounded, but Kinney said the Aspen market is so lucrative for airlines that they would hold onto those planes until the runway project is complete.