Aspen to lengthen runway

Some pilots question whether project will make airport safer

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— Extending the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport runway has been touted as a way to boost air service efficiency, but a few pilots questioned Wednesday whether the longer runway would make the airport any safer.

Pitkin County commissioners had been scheduled to review the project but tabled the matter to July 14 for procedural reasons. Commissioners voted Wednesday to rezone several parcels at the airport that either had improper zoning or no zoning, but that rezoning is not yet in effect. The county doesn’t take up development applications until the proper zoning is in place, advised County Attorney John Ely, suggesting commissioners delay the discussion.

Commissioners did, however, hear from several citizens who showed up to voice their opinions, including three pilots who posed safety questions and suggested a longer runway could be less safe. Some attendees questioned the need for the project.

The plan calls for extending the runway from roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet, adding an additional 1,000 feet on the southeast end, closest to town. The added length would allow the commercial jets that currently serve the airport to fill more seats with passengers without bumping up against weight restrictions.

Lengthening the runway also would improve aircraft safety, according to a resolution that commissioners will consider next month.

But there seems to be debate on that point, said Ellen Anderson, the county’s emergency incident commander.

“It may be that the runway extension is safer. Opinions are all over the place,” she said.

Anderson urged an assessment of the possible worst-case scenario at the airport and how the runway project affects the odds, however minute, that such a disaster would occur. Buttermilk Ski Area, just south of the airport, can see crowds of 10,000 people during the Winter X Games, she noted.

Although commercial and private aircraft usually land at the airport from the northwest, and typically take off in that direction, as well, planes sometimes circle town and approach to land from the southeast, crossing in front of the base of Buttermilk. Infrequently, they also take off to the southeast. Wind direction dictates the direction of takeoffs and landings.

“I happen to think that is a dangerous situation today,” said pilot John McBride, predicting planes would make their approach at even lower altitudes as they fly past Buttermilk once the runway is longer at that end.

A crash at Buttermilk on a Saturday afternoon in wintertime “could be the worst catastrophe in the history of Aspen,” McBride said.

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