As many as 40 commercial flights will come daily during peak season
An increased flight load coming into and out of the Aspen Pitkin County Airport this winter will likely stress the cramped capabilities at Sardy Field during peak travel days.
Airport Director John Kinney told the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday that as many as 40 commercial flights are scheduled to fly through Aspen this season, up from 34 last year.
The scheduled peaks of activity are anticipated from 7 to 9 a.m., and again from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Kinney said.
“We really have got a robust schedule coming in,” he said. “This next season we’re going to 40 for daily flights, which is an increase … to where we’re going.”
Delta has also added new service to Salt Lake City, Utah, Kinney noted.
He said the airlines are proposing to have 12 aircraft on the ground at a time around noon on peak travel days.
“It’s almost like, how do you fit 50 gallons of water into a five-gallon bucket?” Kinney said. “You do so with a hole in the bottom of the five-gallon bucket. So as you pour it in, it trickles out. And that’s the same shell game used on the peaking of aircraft.”
He added that the terminal can currently handle nine flights at the maximum in “a pure simultaneous operation,” and the sterile boarding area can accommodate seven flights’ worth of passengers.
This pushes capacity constraints to the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) checkpoints, which are capped at two lanes for checking luggage and passengers into Sardy Field.
“You cannot expand from two to three or four lanes there,” Kinney said. “It’s virtually stuck at two.”
He said the airlines are asking the TSA to increase staff to help mitigate wait times in Aspen.
The commissioners were concerned that the numbers could lead to gridlock during peak season.
“It seems we’re pushing the envelope here,” said Commissioner George Newman. “Do we have any ability to say, this is our limit and we can’t accept any more aircraft at these times? … Do we have to continue to accommodate the airlines in terms of their list of demands versus our ability to provide a safe and pleasant experience for our guests?”
Kinney said improvements can be put off, if that’s the direction the county would like to go.
“It would in some ways have a limiting factor on how many flights they could bring in,” he said.
Kinney added that there are a lot of variables that dictate how many planes can be on the ground at one time.
County Manger Jon Peacock said that the county doesn’t have control over the scheduling of the airlines.
Kinney noted that the busier schedule would be in play roughly 110-120 days of the year.
An environmental assessment is currently underway for plans to replace the current 44,000-square-foot terminal with one up to 80,000-square-feet, though the community will have a say into how that process progresses in the coming years.
Safety concerns with the ‘power out’
Kinney also noted that he has issues with jets powering “up and out” so close to the terminal as they pull in or depart toward the runway.
“Especially the power out, that’s just asking for some issues,” he said. “How the aircraft turns 90-degrees and goes back out to the taxiways as it starts both engines, there’s no tug hooked up to the nose like you see at a lot of airports, and they power out. In doing so, you’re about 50 feet away [from] about 450 degrees and a 200 mile per hour wind. So jet blast becomes a real safety issue out there.”
Kinney said the side of the terminal building is riddled with pits from stones being tossed by the jet blast.
“It really throws a lot of stuff,” he said.
Kinney conveyed that he isn’t comfortable with safety during those times in light of the increased amount of planes on the ground, and will now ask the airlines that a tug be brought into Sardy Field.
Bear buzzes by FAA inspector
Kinney also told the BOCC that a new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector recently gave Sardy Field a clean bill of health, not finding a single discrepancy in his recent check. But he did have a chance to get up, close, and personal with some of the local wildlife.
A bruin made a quick pass by the inspector to check out what he was doing, leading to quite the scare and a request to upgrade to wildlife mitigation fencing around the runways.
“While the inspector was there waiting for staff to meet him over at the Airport Operations Center, just off Owl Creek Road, he was greeted by a bear,” Kinney said with a wry smile. “It was a good-sized bruin, and he thought at first it was someone in a bear costume. He had never been around wildlife before, and he saw it out of the corner of his eye and thought it was Fil Meraz, our director of operations, trying to sneak up on him, and he goes, ‘I’m not going to give him the satisfaction.’”
Kinney then said that when the inspector finally locked eyes with the bear, he lit up like a jet on take-off.
“So it turned and came back toward him at a little quicker pace and … he said it was one of the times in life he moved at lightning pace,” Kinney said.
But his tone became serious when noting that bears got inside the airfield at other times during the inspection.
“Wildlife issues with aircraft are very serious, and you all remember the geese … taking the Airbus 320 into the Hudson [River],” Kinney said. “It is a big issue and we’ll have to address that.”
The current fences at the airport are designed to keep elk and deer out, but the chain-link material provides a way for bears to climb right over.
Peacock stressed that safety is the top priority at Sardy Field, adding that he’d never heard such strong accolades as those coming from the inspector about the job that staff does at the airport.
Kinney told the board that bear-resistant fencing, which still uses chain-link fencing, but incorporates barbed wire that leans backward, preventing the bruins from climbing over, should be installed.