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Airport Recommendations Depend On Pollution Mitigation, Cooperation From Airlines

Olivia Emmer
Aspen Journalism

The ASE Vision Committee will present its recommendations Thursday on the future of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport to Pitkin County commissioners. The citizens committee recommends that the county widen the runway and build a new terminal — but only if the county is able to reduce noise and emissions in the process. Through the long process that led up to the committee’s recommendation, locals have complained about toxic smells, roaring engines and carbon emissions.

Aspen Public Radio's Molly Dove interviewed Aspen Journalism environment editor Elizabeth Stewart-Severy.

APR: The vision committee wants the county to expand the runway and build a new terminal, as part of recommendations that they say must be taken as a package. What else is included in that package? 

AJ: The committee has six recommendations on topics including safety, sustainability and reliability, and Aspen Journalism’s reporting has focused on environmental impacts and sustainability. We looked closely at an environmental assessment from 2018 that said that if the runway is expanded, the airport can expect to see increases in greenhouse-gas emissions and some air pollutants, as well as about 2,000 more flights and 100,000 more people getting on planes in Aspen.  

But the vision committee says that document presents a worst-case scenario, and they set goals to reduce both emissions and noise by 30% and to limit growth to 0.8% per year. 

To do that, they’ve included suggestions or requirements, based on the way they’re presenting this package, to pursue a carbon-based landing fee; a reservation system where everyone who wants to fly into Aspen has to book ahead; on-site renewable energy; more biofuels; and other measures. 

There has been a lot of concern in the community that expanding the runway will allow for larger planes. John Bennet, the chair of the vision committee, says it is true that it would accommodate bigger planes, but the committee has a plan for how to ensure that those planes fit with what the community wants. 

“We are limiting future airliners — larger airliners — only to planes that are significantly cleaner and quieter than today’s,” Bennet said. 

The committee is clear that it wants a cleaner airport, but there are real challenges to making that happen. The county does not get to choose or regulate which planes fly in and out of the airport because the Clean Air Act forbids that. 

Credit Olivia Emmer / Aspen Journalism
Aspen Journalism
Skiers ride the Summit Express lift at Buttermilk Ski Resort while jets at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport prepare for takeoff. Some residents are concerned about strong smells from airplane exhaust.

APR: So, if the vision committee wants cleaner, quieter planes, how can they ensure that will happen? 

AJ: They can’t guarantee it. They’ve asked the county to negotiate with airlines about what planes they’ll choose to fly in here. The preferred model is the Airbus 220-100, which seats 34 more passengers than the current regional jet and is significantly quieter and cleaner. 

Bennet says the vision committee was in contact with legal counsel in “the airline world” who advised them that it’s possible to have these kinds of negotiations. 

The committee has asked that the county spend 60-90 days investigating if these kinds of negotiations are possible, and if the county can’t be sure that the airlines will cooperate, the plan becomes null and void. 

That’s just on the commercial side. About 75% of the flights in and out of Aspen are on private jets or chartered flights, known as general aviation. So even if the county is able to negotiate with airlines to have cleaner, quieter planes, that only accounts for a quarter of the flights. 

Credit Olivia Emmer / Aspen Journalism
Aspen Journalism
An Aspen Skiing Co. employee rakes the features at the Buttermilk Ski Resort while a private jet prepares for takeoff at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in the background. Approximately 20,000 private jets use the airport annually. The airport vision committee hopes that private-jet owners will voluntarily transition to newer, greener planes.

APR: So how does the vision committee’s plan address private aviation? 

AJ: It relies on mitigation measures like the reservation system that would require people to book ahead, and changes to pricing systems that discourage travel at peak times. And incentivizing people to fly cleaner planes — so, that’s where a carbon-based landing fee comes into play. If you have a plane that causes lots of noise and emissions, you’ll pay more to land in Aspen. 

There are also technological changes that Bennet says can make a big difference. Those include installing new plug-in stations that would eliminate the use of loud and smelly auxiliary power units, which people use to provide power to jets before they’ve left the parking spot. 

But again, it’s not clear how — or if — most of these mitigation measures would work. 

APR: County commissioners will hear the plan Thursday at 4 p.m. What comes next? 

AJ: This process is far from over. Commissioners will not be deciding anything Thursday — it’s a presentation. 

Members of the opposition group Save Our Skies, as well as at least one member of the vision committee, have voiced concern about starting this public process during the current pandemic, when community participation is limited to comments submitted ahead of the meeting. 

If the county moves forward eventually, Bennet says the first step is to be sure that it’s possible to negotiate with airlines. He says there will also need to be another environmental assessment that would look at what the impacts would be, including these mitigation measures, and there needs to be cooperation and approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Editor’s Note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of the environment. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.