Thursday, April 7, 2016

Federal Aviation Administration to clear the air on controversy over aircraft priority at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport/Sardy Field (KASE), Aspen, Pitkin County, Colorado: Officials will meet with county next week

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration are meeting with Pitkin County next week to discuss the challenges presented by the landscape around the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, and will set the record straight on a perceived notion that private planes have priority over commercial aircraft.

The FAA has long said that private planes do not have priority over any commercial aircraft, and that all planes are on a first-come, first-served basis. But the sheer volume of private aircraft coming in to Sardy Field makes many frustrated commercial passengers feel that they are waiting on the taxiway in order to accommodate these smaller jets.

John Kinney, airport director, said Wednesday that the meeting will take place during the usual Pitkin County commissioners work session on April 12, and Greg Dyer, FAA’s terminal assistant district manager for the Rocky Mountain District, will be in attendance.

Kinney said the discussion will cover the unique challenges of the airspace over Aspen, and take a look at the reliability of local navigational aids.

“It’s an extraordinarily complex bit of airspace over Aspen,” he said.

Kinney noted that there is emerging technology that could improve the predictability of flight times at the airport, and Sardy Field would be the ideal place to beta test it. The geographical and weather-related realities of the region often conspire to cause flights to be delayed, diverted, or cancelled outright, making Aspen one of the more difficult destinations to fly in and out of reliably.

“We were ranked in the Top-10 in the country, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons,” he said.

The discussion will also update the BOCC on the environmental assessment (EA) process that is currently underway. A recent public scoping period netted roughly 200 responses, some of which will be discussed with the commissioners, Kinney said. 

The EA will lay out the plans for needed safety improvements such as a new terminal building and a wider, reconfigured runway to accommodate jets with wider wingspans. Future aircraft are getting larger, and Sardy Field will be ill-equipped to handle those planes without the expansion.

During a meeting with the public affairs committee of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association this week, some attendees were miffed by talk of larger aircraft, possibly 737s, flying into Sardy Field.

But there’s no specific answer as to what aircraft will be utilized in the future.

Kinney said that staff recently sent a letter to all the airlines that fly into Aspen inquiring about the makeup of their current and future fleets, but has yet to receive a response.

He added that nobody knows exactly what planes will be allowed to fly into Aspen until the EA is complete and size allowances are determined.

“Can larger aircraft come in? We don’t know that yet,” he said. “That should all be fleshed out in the EA process.”

Sardy Field is in a unique position as it faces the prospect of larger planes. The airport has operated for years under a modification of standards (MOD), in which the runway and taxiway were only separated by 320 feet from the center line of each, while the FAA standard for a design category three airport is 400 feet. The runway is also 100 feet wide, while a design three standard is 150 feet.

Under the MOD, any planes landing at the airport are capped at a 95-foot or smaller wingspan. But every viable commercial jet being built going forward will have a wingspan greater than 95 feet, meaning if Aspen wants to retain its level of airline service, upgrades must be made.

The community must also decide what kind of experience it wants out at the facility, and has traditionally panned the idea of a larger airport.

Kinney added that the internal layout of the planned, new 80,000-square-foot terminal building will also need to be decided on. 

Because of the unpredictability of conditions at Sardy Field, the “dwell time” for travelers can be longer than the norm, he said. This means traveler comfort, food-and-beverage options, technological amenities, and possibly retail opportunities must be factored in.

Kinney added that operations are very constrained at the current 44,000-square-foot facility, and with the future of larger planes, more passengers could be delayed at the airport.

“[What we need to look at is] what is going to happen within that 80,000 square feet?” he said. “It needs to be put in the dialogue.”

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