Pitkin County officials want to test new jets at airport

September 10, 2018

Pitkin County officials said they want to reach out to airlines and plane manufacturers in an effort to experience how new types of aircraft would land and take off at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, part of an “open house” of sorts so the public can gauge the noise and other impacts of the next generation of jets.

County commissioners’ remarks came during an air-service study update from airport director John Kinney and two consultants, part of a potentially massive redevelopment of Sardy Field that could result in carriers landing 737s here. The project, which could cost nearly $400 million, involves shifting the runway 80 feet to the west and widening by 50 feet, and building a new terminal that may approach 80,000 square feet.

Commissioner Greg Poschman questioned how quickly the main regional jet serving the upper valley, the CRJ700, will actually cease to exist. Kinney said the phasing out of that aircraft, which seats roughly 70 to 80 people, was the impetus for the initial air service study, completed in 2014. The study was a response to the FAA asking whether Sardy Field could comply with development and operational standards.

No North American carriers have placed recent orders for the CRJ700, said Ryk Dunkelberg of Mead and Hunt, an aviation environmental engineering firm the county hired for consultation, adding that resources for narrow-body commercial service aircraft are being devoted to the CS100 series. Such planes have a 108- to 133-seat capacity (another variant can transport up to 160 passengers) and wingspans of 115 feet.

Commissioner Patti Clapper noted experts’ predictions that the new planes have noise levels quieter than the CRJ.

“It’s a really good airplane for this airport,” Dunkelberg said, showing a map of where it could reach in the country from Aspen.

The lifespan of the last of the CRJ700s is expected to end around 2023, Dunkelberg said.

Poschman didn’t seem convinced, noting the “very lucrative market” for carriers to continue using the CRJ700s for Aspen service.

“There’s still a pretty strong economic argument to fly them into Aspen,” he said. “I have trouble believing they’ll be all gone in five years … it could be six, could be 20.”

Dunkelberg explained some of the background of the potential project — Kinney said recently it may the largest infrastructure endeavor on the West Slope since Glenwood Canyon — including an airport master plan completed in 2012 and a subsequent facility layout plan that was presented to the FAA. The federal agency rejected part of the latter plan, citing the airport’s violation of a standard involving runway-taxiway separation.

The FAA for decades had allowed the so-called modification of standards, which included the county commissioners passing an ordinance prohibiting planes with wingspans longer than 95 feet from landing at Sardy Field.

But in the past 10 to 12 years, the FAA has been putting the kibosh on such variances “if an airport can reasonably meet those standards,” Dunkelberg said.

That led county officials to order airport staff to study alternatives to meet such standards. It was established that Sardy Field can meet such standards without a modification if the runway is relocated 80 feet to the west. That, in turn, led to an environmental assessment (EA) as part of the updated airport layout plan submitted to FAA, and the agency’s finding that the proposal would have no significant impact on the environment, as well as a record of decision.

“However, during the preparation of the EA, we knew things had changed,” Dunkelberg said. “[Certain] aircraft were no longer in production, some new aircraft were on the design board, and so we looked at the possibility of several narrow-body aircraft operating at the airport, and what effect that would have environmentally. We modeled 737 Airbus-sized aircraft in our environmental document, having no clue whether they actually could operate here economically or not.

“But we decided we needed to disclose what those impacts would be if they could operate here.”

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