Flights to be grounded as runway extension nears end

Flights to be grounded as runway extension nears end

Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport will be closed to all but one daily flight for six days this off-season, as its $15.4 million runway extension project enters the final stretch of construction.

The two separate partial three-day closures come during slow travel weeks for Aspen, but may impact team arrivals for a locally hosted international rugby tournament.

The airport’s runway is being lengthened by 1,000 feet, which promises to accommodate full passenger loads on local flights. Construction has been ongoing since April, and is slated to wrap at the end of October. The Pitkin County commissioners approved the project last year. It is being paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local airport user fees, without local tax dollars.

For most of September and October, as construction crews lay down the last bit of asphalt on the extension, the usable runway length will be shortened to 6,500 feet.

From Sept. 13 through Sept. 15, and again from Oct. 4 to Oct. 6, it will be further shortened to 6,000 feet.

The airport’s biggest carrier, United Airlines, cannot fly those days, because the CRJ-700 jets the company uses for Aspen cannot safely take off and land on a runway that short.

FAA regulations mandate a cleared 1,000-foot safety area beyond the end of a runway, which cannot have any obstructions in it, like construction equipment. That means the Aspen airport’s useable runway must temporarily be shortened this fall, as crews finish the extension.

Frontier Airlines, which flies just one trip a day in and out of Aspen during the fall, will continue operating on 6,000-foot runway. Its turboprop planes can operate safely on shorter runways than United’s jets.

While the near-closure comes in one of the quietest periods of the fall off-season, the September dates overlap with the 44th annual Aspen Ruggerfest, which hosts 50 rugby teams from around the U.S., Europe and the southern hemisphere.

This year, Ruggerfest is scheduled for Sept. 15 to 18 and team arrivals have been complicated by the airport issue.

Bill McEnteer, chairman of the Aspen Gentleman and local Ruggerfest organizer, sent an announcement to this year’s participating teams in July to caution them of the travel difficulties. He said he doesn’t know how the lack of local flights as the tournament opens will affect participation or play.

“The final impact is a mystery but rugby players are very resourceful when it comes to making it to games so I am hopeful the impact will be negligible,” he said last week via email.

United, operated locally by SkyWest Airlines, is routing flights to Eagle County Airport that would have gone between Denver to Aspen for those six days. SkyWest spokesperson Marisa Snow said Wednesday the company will announce details of those re-routes this week.

She added that SkyWest is sending extra ticket counter staff to both Aspen and Vail for those days, to handle any traveler issues arising out of the flight groundings.

Local airport officials met with SkyWest representatives and local tourism officials to choose dates that would impact local travel the least.

“We worked with the airport in Aspen,” Snow said. “Their objective was to avoid any high traffic times for Aspen.”

The extensive work surrounding the runway extension has included relocating the Owl Creek bicycle path; building new berms and grading for a plane taxiway on the Highway 82 side of the runway; and redeveloping the Buttermilk Metropolitan District’s water system, which runs through the airport grounds and serves homes on West Buttermilk.

The project has remained on schedule despite this summer’s FAA work stoppage. The airport had paid its contractors before the stoppage that temporarily shut down airport construction projects nationwide, so the local work was unaffected.

David Ulane, the airport’s assistant aviation director and project manager for the runway extension, said the project has run smoothly.

“We’ve stayed on schedule, on budget, and things are moving along exactly as planned,” Ulane said during a tour of the site Wednesday.

The six days of inconvenience and the high price tag of the runway extension, he argued, have already proved worth stomaching.

The extension and its ability to carry planes full of passengers — which has previously been limited due to the length of the runway — led the airport to land American Airlines as its third carrier, just last month.

“American told us they couldn’t do it without the extension, they couldn’t fly here economically without it,” he said.

American will begin flying winter and summer flights into Aspen beginning this ski season, to and from Dallas and Los Angeles.

andrew@aspendailynews.com

8_18_airportconstruction_cc.jpg

Photo Credit with Byline:
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News

Photo Caption:
Construction is underway at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet. Due to the project, the airport will be closed for six days this off-season to the CRJ-700 jets, shown here, flown by United Airlines.

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