Sunday, September 13, 2015

Expanded runway would mean bigger Gulfstreams in Aspen, Colorado

Aviation acronyms casually were thrown around at two Pitkin County commissioners’ meetings this week regarding the airport’s future. FAA, EA, ALP, MOD and FBO were common parlance.

But a new ingredient in the alphabet soup — VLJ — emerged when consultant J.D. Ingram was explaining what type of corporate jets would be able to serve the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport when it has an expanded runway.

VLJ stands for “very large jets,” Ingram said, noting that the Gulfstream G650, which is too big to fly into Aspen now, could do so with the widened and reconfigured runway. The G650 also falls, Ingram said, in the VLJ department.

“It is designed to go from Aspen to Paris,” he said. “It’s that type of range — 7,000 miles.”

Gulfstream jets are fairly common sights on the airport’s tarmac, especially during the high seasons and holidays. But the G650, the company’s largest jet, is too big for the existing runway.

“It’s the top of the line for Gulfstream,” Ingram said. “Previous to that is the G550. ... The 550 does operate out of this airport all the time.”

The G550 — a version of the Gulfstream V — can travel as far as 6,750 miles, seats as many as 19 passengers, sleeps eight, has a maximum takeoff weight of 91,000 pounds and tops out in speed at Mach 0.885, according to Gulfstream’s website. New G550s can command more than $50 million.

The G550’s wingspan is 93 feet, 6 inches, which is within the Aspen airport’s 95-foot limit.

The G650 can fly as far as 7,000 miles, seats 19 passengers at most, sleeps as many as 10, has a maximum takeoff weight of 99,600 pounds and can travel as fast as Mach 0.925. The G650s, which have a cruise speed of 594 mph, cost in the $65 million range and a have wingspan of 100 feet — too big for the Aspen airport.

According to airport Director John Kinney, there’s demand for the G650 among Pitkin County’s moneyed set.

Kinney said Thursday that he learned a few months ago that 22 individuals with Aspen real estate connections had placed orders for the G650s.

“About four weeks ago, that pending total had risen from 22 to 33,” he said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Commissioner George Newman acknowledged the demand: “Given our clientele and second-home owners, they may be looking to upgrade to a VLJ because they are residing in VLHs,” or very large homes.

But those VLJs can’t fly into Aspen, at least for now. Widening and reconfiguring the runway, however, would expand the airport’s wingspan restriction to 118 feet, meaning the larger private jets made by Gulfstream and Bombardier would be flying the Aspen skies.

But a lot needs to happen for that to take place.

Commissioners Wednesday approved an airport layout plan calling for a new terminal as large as 80,000 square feet and a runway widening and configuration. Improving the runway by widening it 50 feet and shifting its center line 80 feet to the west would allow wingspans as wide as 118 feet, according to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. A small stretch of Owl Creek Road, which is located within a county right of way, also would have to be moved to accommodate the runway. The runway and taxiway currently are divided by 320 feet, but that would increase to 400 feet.

But first, the FAA must approve the layout plan and then begin an environmental assessment, which could take as long as two years.

The county estimates that if the process goes smoothly, the improved runway would be ready by 2027.

The increased capacity also would allow a new generation of commercial aircraft to serve Aspen. Airlines are phasing out Bombardier CRJ700s, which make up 95 percent of commercial service.

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