The runway at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport may need to be moved 80 feet to the west if Aspen wants to accommodate the next generation of regional commercial jets and build a new FBO on the west side of the runway, which is to the left in photo, taken in April 2013. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

ASPEN – All systems are go for the third and final phase of planning how to accommodate future air service at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.

On Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners approved aviation director Jim Elwood’s request to spend $512,541 on community outreach efforts, financial studies and other assessments requested by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Research resulting from the airport’s master planning process determined that the current runway configuration is inadequate to handle the next generation of regional commercial planes, let alone meet enhanced safety requirements by the FAA. The “separation,” or distance from the runway’s center line to the center line of the taxiway, also is out of compliance.

The airport can accommodate aircraft with wing spans of 95 feet but the new generation of regional jets could exceed that by 20 feet.

“The fact is, the wing spans are growing,” Elwood said. And failure to keep pace with these changes could result in a significant loss of commercial air service to the community.

“We’re being proactive to what could be a crisis,” he said.

Studies determined that moving the existing runway by 80 feet to the west and widening it by 150 feet could help bring the airport up to FAA standards. The expansion, which early estimates target between $121 million and $132 million, also could allow room for a second fixed base operator for general aviation, an amenity the FAA views favorably as both a revenue source and to stimulate more competition.

Voicing a local citizen’s concerns, commissioner Michael Owsley asked if this is “a plan to bring more people here.”

Elwood replied, “It doesn’t bring more people. It just protects the people who have been coming to our community.”

A decade in the making

A 2,500-foot section of Owl Creek Road will need to be moved if the “Airport Layout Plan” goes forward. Because it would potentially encroach upon a portion of the Burlingame Ranch Open Space, the issue would likely be decided by Aspen voters.

Commissioner Steve Child asked about some of the other potential “unintended consequences” the plan could spawn.

Elwood said the potential for unintended consequences is behind the airport’s comprehensive studies and aggressive community outreach program that includes everything from open houses, public meetings, video production and newspaper ads.

More than $219,000 is budgeted for this facet of the plan, the largest single budget item in this phase of what’s called the “Future Air Service Planning Study.”

“There’s a lot of work to be done by a lot of people,” Elwood said.

Media outreach efforts will begin immediately and will be focused within a six-month window. But the entire project could take up to 10 years to complete when environmental studies, design and engineering, grant money requests, a public vote and construction are factored in. The year 2025 also is when the current fleet of regional jets is expected to be retired from service in North America.

“That’s why we’re continuing to move forward,” Elwood said. “We’re trying to protect dates and calendar so we don’t end up in wrong place at the wrong time.”

Other milestones to be completed in this third phase include determining a preliminary financial plan and feasibility analysis to establish a timeline for the project, and analyzing aircraft performance and how it relates to the runway relocation.

The airport operates as an enterprise fund and is supported mostly by landing fees and fuel sales. No property or sales tax dollars contribute to the fund, which is projecting a $10 million balance this year.

Qualified projects are eligible to have 90 percent of their cost paid through FAA grant funds. Three years ago, the runway was extended by 1,000 feet at a cost of $15.5 million to accommodate aircraft during certain times of the year when landing and take-offs are dependent on weather.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated on this story with the Aspen Daily News, which published the story on Wednesday, July 16, 2014.