Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Andy Stone: Flying blind into a major mistake • Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (KASE), Colorado


Let’s start with this: The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is one of this town’s great glories. Seriously.

Having an airport right at the city limits helped Aspen leap into the front rank of ski resorts from the very beginning.

In those long-ago days, skiing was far less comfortable and more dangerous than it is now, and the fact that the Aspen airport was also uncomfortable and dangerous fit right in.

Neither skiing nor the Aspen airport was for the faint of heart.

The flights from Denver to Aspen in those early days were perfectly described in the words of Thomas Hobbes: “Nasty, brutish and short.” (That, by the way, was Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher, talking about the “life of man” in 1651 — not “Hound Dawg” Hobbs, Dallas oil executive, talking about a 1950s Aspen Airways flight on a war-surplus DC-3.)

We’ve come a long way since then, and the improvements in the Aspen airport and the planes that fly here have been notable and welcome — especially for those who are faint of heart or weak of stomach.

But, like the rest of Aspen, the airport has been under regular pressure from those who confuse “bigger” with “better” and “more” with “merrier” and who see the airport as a key to herding the hordes into town.

We elect governments here to control developers. But when, as happens with the airport, it’s the government’s turn to become a developer, suddenly the word “control” disappears from the bureaucrats’ vocabulary.

And now they’re at it again.

To put it into a nutshell, we are dangerously far down the path to a massive airport expansion: a bigger runway, an enormous new terminal, a huge underground parking garage, major development on the now-pristine far side of the runway — and, just for fun, a rerouted Owl Creek Road.

And, as we rocket toward this monster development (that puts mere billionaires’ mansions to shame), we suddenly have a new man in charge of the process because the airport director who put all this in motion has scurried off to work his magic elsewhere.

But before we talk about the new guy in charge, I want to discuss one major question about this major expansion — a question that has been raised before but which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been adequately answered. Indeed, it seems to have been almost completely ignored.

Some background: We have been told that we need this expansion because the existing airport runway is too narrow to accommodate the coming “new generation” of regional jets.

The jets that fly here now are being phased out and the planes that will replace them exceed the maximum 95-foot wingspan that the Federal Aviation Administration will allow on the present runway and taxiway.

So we’re stuck. The new planes are too big and if we want jet service in Aspen, expand we must.

But wait! That new regional jet is the Mitsubishi MRJ 90. Its wingspan is indeed over the magic 95-foot mark.

By slightly less than 10 inches.

That’s it. Ten inches.

So here’s the question: Is it truly impossible to get an FAA waiver to allow those extra 10 inches? Or, alternatively, can the assembled brainpower of Pitkin County and all its high-priced consultants figure out some way to jigger the runway/taxiway layout to make room for 10 — again: 10 — inches of extra wingspan?

And a final question: Has anyone involved even tried? Or was everyone so blinded by the power and the glory and the chance to spend all those hundreds of millions of dollars that they never considered the possibility of doing less?

And I have to add here that some have said (uncharitably, but accurately) that while the wingspan of the Mitsubishi jet is barely over the 95-foot limit, the wingspan of the newest Gulfstream G650 — the pride of the private-jet crowd — is more than 99 feet, definitely too big for any kind of waiver. And (really uncharitable, but still accurate), Gulfstream is a wholly-owned subsidiary of General Dynamics, which forms a massive part of the Crown Family fortune. You know the Crowns, right? Yeah, those guys.

And now, with all of that in mind, we need to consider the new airport director, the man in charge: John Kinney.

And, while some might consider this a cheap shot, I have to begin by noting that Kinney comes to us directly from a top position at Los Angeles International Airport — LAX.

Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s kind of big.

Let me be clear: I have not met Kinney. He may well be as nice a person as anyone could hope for. He might — who knows — be a fierce advocate for government restraint and tiny, little airports.

Indeed, we have been assured (by the county manager who hired him) that Kinney really understands small communities and small community airports.

He may have been a kind of tragic misfit, doing a brilliant job in LA (and, before that, in Long Beach, California, and Scottsdale, Arizona, and Denver), but always pining for a tiny place in the mountains.

But I admit, I am a little wary.

As I would be if the City Council suddenly up and hired an assistant chief of police from New York City to run the Aspen cop shop.

I’m concerned about the sense of scale.

There simply is no reasonable way to compare LAX with our own little ASE.

The price tag on our renovations is in the millions. Theirs is in the billions.

What we consider huge, Kinney might — quite reasonably, under the circumstances — consider miniscule.

And so we are left with one enormous project and two enormous questions:

First, is all this necessary for 10 inches of wingspan?

Second, will the new guy in charge be willing to consider how small we really are?

How small we really should be.

And, sorry, one more question: Is it too late?

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