ASPEN — It has been described as sounding like a lawn mower whining across the sky or a rusty table saw passing overhead.
On Thursday, a handful of Woody Creek denizens asked Aspen-Pitkin County Airport officials what can be done about it. The focus of their complaint was the Piaggio P180 Avanti, an aircraft flown in and out of the local airport by Avantair, an aircraft fractional company based in Clearwater, Fla.
The unique turboprop features a canard, or horizontal stabilizer, beneath its nose, giving it the look of a hammerhead shark. Its propellers are situated behind the engines — a design that apparently contributes to the sound that makes it instantly recognizable to those on the ground below.
“It sounds like a table saw — that's rusty,” said Woody Creek resident Robert Pew.
Operation of the P180 has climbed onto lists maintained by the airport, which tracks noise events and noise complaints, though the aircraft is actually quieter, in terms of decibels, than some private jets, according to Paul Dunholter, noise consultant for the airport. It's the pitch that's noticeable.
“The Piaggio may only be in the 70s (decibel range), but irritation-wise, it really spikes up,” Dunholder said.
“It's a unique noisy. It's grating,” agreed resident Don Lemos.
What the airport can do about it, however, is very little, officials said.
The Santa Monica Airport banned the Piaggio in the wake of a 1984 lawsuit settlement, but the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 prohibits the noise policy that Santa Monica was able to enact.
“We don't have any legal authority to ban an aircraft the way Santa Monica did. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't,” said Francey Jesson, assistant aviation director of operations at the local airport.
If a rock band played a concert in downtown Aspen, the event would have to comply with the city's noise ordinance, said resident Buddy Ortega. “How is that different than what we're doing here?”
Transportation, including vehicles and airplanes, is exempt from such local ordinances, Dunholter explained.
Residents also suggested hiking the landing fees for noisy aircraft or limiting their daily operations.
“To tell you the truth, I could live with two flights a day,” Ortega said. But on Labor Day, there were five arrivals and five takeoffs by 11 a.m., he said.
Airport officials were not optimistic that they can take any action to alleviate the situation, but developments involving Avantair and the airplane's manufacturer may provide some relief, Jesson said.
The chief pilot for Avantair was only recently made aware that Piaggio noise was an issue at the local airport. Pilots will be instructed to reduce the plane's engine power from 2,000 rpm to 1,800 on approach in clear weather — a protocol the company uses at other noise-sensitive airports, Jesson said.
In addition, a new propeller design that reduces the aircraft's noise is in the testing stage now. Avantair is committed to retrofitting its fleet if and when it becomes available, she reported.
“I'm hoping this 1,800 rpm shift makes a noticeable difference to you on the ground underneath the aircraft, said Jim Elwood, aviation director.
So far this year, the airport has seen 500 to 600 flights in and out by various Piaggios in Avantair's fleet, he said. It amounts to about 5 percent of overall operations by private aircraft at the airport annually, Jesson said.
The aircraft began local operations four to five years ago, but they've roughly doubled in the past couple of years, she said.
Avantair sells fractional shares in its aircraft among its flight options for clientele.
“Apparently, a fairly significant number of locals have bought into the airplanes,” Elwood said. One fractional owner expressed regret after finding out how noisy the planes are, he added.
Airport officials urged residents who live in the airport flight path to let them know if the situation improves as Avantair takes steps to reduce its noise impacts. Call 429-1868 to log a noise complaint with the airport.