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There are times at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport when the sky is clogged with so many planes attempting to land in the same timeframe that air traffic control will have to put some in a holding pattern. Often, those planes are commercial flights, bringing tourists to town from Denver or Chicago. When those United or American flights grow low on fuel from all the circling—which they often do, because their range is limited—they’ll typically be diverted to Grand Junction.

Landing at Aspen is first come, first served under FAA rules for the one-runway airport that sits along Colorado 82 northwest of Aspen, a few thousand yards from the children’s ski school at Buttermilk Resort, owned by Aspen Skiing Company.

Private planes make up a whopping 83% of all air traffic flying in and out of the airport, and they’re often first in line to touch down or take off. When they’re up front and the commercials have to go Grand Junction, passengers are bused 125 miles back to Aspen, where one analyst estimates 60 of the world’s 2,640 billionaires live or own property. 

When everything is running smoothly, it can be a thrilling experience flying into or out of the Aspen airport. But if there was anything friendly in the skies above Aspen on a recent day when the skies were crowded with planes, chances are it was soured by the mood surrounding the airport. At issue: whether or not to bring the airport up to FAA standards by widening the runway, a debate that’s been ongoing for decades. 

A vocal group led by Amory Lovins — the founder of the green-energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute — is fighting expansion, saying it unfairly favors private pilots, would decrease safety at an already dangerous airport and will degrade Aspenites’ quality of life with bigger planes flying in and out more frequently, increased noise, air pollution and climate-harming emissions. Lovins, also the founder of Aspen Fly Right, said the community overwhelmingly opposes expansion.

But most Pitkin County commissioners, the airport director and other residents favor the plan to increase the separation between the taxiway and runway by 80 feet and upgrade the terminal to the highest green-building standards, saying it will solve the very issues the opposition holds up as reasons for not expanding. Without the expansion, they say, the airport could lose crucial FAA funding for maintaining any runway and moving the airport terminal toward net-zero energy consumption.   

A large white jet several feet off above the runway as it lands

LEFT: An aircraft approaches the runway at the Aspen Airport. RIGHT: The Aspen Airport runway is nestled in the Roaring Fork Valley less than three miles from town of Aspen. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The conflict rings true for other Colorado communities in close proximity to airports. In May, citizens of Centennial, concerned over lead emissions at their airport, fought to get unleaded fuel offered to pilots at their airport, and Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport took its first step toward converting on Wednesday. In September, the Colorado Springs Airport announced it would soon start upgrades to its 29-year-old terminal because so many people were skipping it in favor of flying out of Denver. Residents in Rifle are irked when private flights from Aspen have to re-route there. And Denver International Airport on Wednesday said it will add 100 new gates to its already behemoth operation by 2045, preparing to handle double the passenger traffic now passing through the country’s third-busiest airport. 

Entwined with the Aspen airport’s runway expansion are upgrades to its terminal, described by county commissioner Patti Clapper as “falling down around our ears.” 

Dan Bartholomew, the airport’s director since May 2021, said any holdups on the runway expansion impact that terminal project as well, and that the “spread of disinformation” by Aspen Fly Right has already created hiccups. 

Aspen Fly Right bills itself as “an independent nonpartisan public charity” dedicated to fact-finding “with no dog in the fight.” Lovins says no one has told him what information is wrong. “They’ve never taught us. We’re trying to be constructive.”

An older man with cowboy hat stands on the tarmac with private jets
Old Snowmass resident Amory Lovins, who created a nonprofit organization, Aspen Fly Right, watches an aircraft take off at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport in July. The organization aims to create solutions for a quieter and cleaner airport nestled in the valley. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

 But some — including Barry Vaughan, a longtime pilot who lives in El Jebel and chairs the county’s airport flight operations safety task force — say the fight over the Aspen airport’s future isn’t really about the airport’s future. It’s about growth versus anti-growth, a familiar story in Colorado.   

How not fixing a road foreshadowed the airport debate

Vaughan said you can’t understand the story of the Aspen airport unless you know the story of the road to Aspen.  

He’s talking about Colorado 82, a four-lane highway out of Glenwood Springs from Interstate 70 that narrows to two lanes just past the airport going into Aspen. It then snakes around what was, until silver prices bottomed out in 1917, a highly productive silver processing plant that is now Marolt Open Space and west Aspen. The road was built with a series of curves going into (or out of ) town. And it remains that way despite attempts in the 1980s and ’90s, when the economy exploded, to straighten the highway over the open space to create better access to downtown Aspen. 

“But after a dozen public votes, it stayed the same, and there are people in Aspen currently who think the way it is now protects them from public onslaught,” Vaughan said. “And now, on most mornings and evenings, it can take 45 minutes to an hour to get from the pinch point at Marolt Open Space to the center of town.” 

“There are a lot of very opinionated people here who tend to remember the way things were 10 to 50 years ago,” he added. “So whenever there’s a chance to remove a transportation inefficiency, there’s pushback.” 

The way that relates to the airport also involves a story. The terminal opened in 1976. It was a source of pride for Aspen as the first commercial building in the United States to use passive solar heating. For years, the airport remained a somewhat sleepy hub used by the wealthiest business people and celebrities. But in 1995, Aspen Skiing Co. asked the county to put funding for a wider runway on the ballot, in order to accommodate bigger planes full of more skiers wanting easy access to the valley.   

Doing so would have brought more tourists to fill hotel beds, shop in boutiques and dine in the town’s restaurants. Money and tax dollars would have piled up. But not everyone supported the vision. 

Commercial airline travelers arrive and lounge at the Aspen Airport terminal. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Among them was one Hunter S. Thompson, the equally beloved and reviled “gonzo journalist” of Aspen, who, upon hearing of the ski company’s plan, enlisted the help of “Boys of Summer” crooner Don Henley to campaign against the widening of the runway. 

“Thompson lived in Woody Creek and was looking for a cause,” Vaughan said. “He’d had several already and would hold court in an inebriated fashion at Hotel Jerome. So when this came up, he staked out a claim: no expansion. Henley wrote a check for $300,000 to help finance an opposition.” 

Ellen Anderson, a co-founder and the treasurer of Aspen Fly Right, speaks fondly of the days when Thompson dropped matches in the petrol of Aspen politics, as The Los Angeles Times put it. She lives in the Aspen Village neighborhood across the river from Woody Creek and still has a “no 737s” bumper sticker and two buttons created during Thompson’s airport campaign. Some loved Thompson, some loathed him. But he mobilized his following and got the attention of the ski company, which asked the commissioners to take the runway expansion question off the ballot. The commissioners refused, and the result was a resounding vote of no.

But that same year, something happened that Vaughan said continues to inform today’s debate. 

There are some who describe our work as misinformation and propaganda, but that is not satisfactory.

— Amory Lovins — the founder of the green-energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute

The Federal Aviation Administration’s general accounting office turned its attention to the Aspen airport as it began discussing the dangers and safety issues associated with mountain flying in the United States. 

One focus was a difference in curfews Pitkin County had placed on commercial flights and private planes landing at the airport. In a move that angered private pilots, the FAA said commercial planes could land until 11 p.m., while private planes had to be on the ground by sunset. A general aviation group, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, filed a complaint with the FAA saying the discriminatory curfew was a violation of grant assurances, or promises airport operators have to make to get FAA funding. 

The private pilots won. “But the way some of the Woody Creek group remembers it is that the FAA tried to take away our curfew and we went to Congress and got a law passed to preserve our right for local control,” Vaughan said. “They look to that event and that congressional legislation as an example of how they think ‘We’re different. We can get our way with the FAA. We don’t have to submit to their control.’” 

The sentiment continues today.  

The blessed curse of FAA oversight 

Clapper, the longtime Pitkin County commissioner, said the federal government has its place in helping local governments manage facilities such as airports, but there should be some flexibility as far as specific needs and concerns and limitations, especially in Rocky Mountain communities. The fact that there isn’t any frustrates local governments and their constituents, she added, “because they don’t understand why we can’t have a firmer say in what we believe we need for our airport.”  

But Bartholomew said there’s no getting around negotiating with the FAA, “because if the community says we don’t want the expansion, the FAA will come back and say, ‘Okay, don’t do it, but we’re not giving you any funding, for things like runway maintenance.'”  

The agency groups airports into several categories based on standards including separation between taxiways and runways. They do this to determine which aircraft can fly in and out, based on wingspan. 

The Aspen airport is unique among most airports for several reasons, not the least of which is that it sits at 7,680 feet boxed in by 11,000- to 14,000-foot peaks. Dramatic shifts in air density impede “lift.” Erratic winds have often been cited as contributing factors in the 40-plus crashes in 40 years at or near the airport. And planes land and take off on the same strip of pavement, sometimes at the same time. The space between the airport’s taxiway and runway, just 320 feet, is another anomaly among airports, Bartholomew said. The vast majority of airports are categorized as 2, 3, 4, etc., while Aspen, with its wonky layout, “falls just short of a category 3,” he added.

That means there’s only enough distance between the runway and taxiway to accommodate planes with wingspans of 95 feet or less. Anything bigger and the planes wouldn’t be able to bypass each other. But Bartholomew said the FAA wants the separation widened to a category 3, to accommodate planes with wingspans up to 117 feet. This is the core issue Aspen Fly Right opposes, with Lovins calling the FAA mandate a “foundational myth promoted for at least 13 years” that proponents of expansion claim is “a basis for needing to rebuild [the runway] for bigger airplanes.” 

“It’s a safety issue for the FAA,” Bartholomew counters. “A wider runway for them is always better.” And from a business perspective, he said, it would be a boon for Aspen, the county and its residents because it “would give the airport more options for types of aircraft that can come in.” 

A plane takes off from Aspen Airport, Oct. 5, in front of Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk ski areas. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

This goes for both private and commercial planes, he added, but he focused on commercial carriers. Aspen is currently served by SkyWest Airlines, flying passengers for American, Delta and United. The largest plane they can currently land on the airstrip is a Bombardier CRJ700 with seats for 78 passengers and a wingspan of 76 feet. (Although a privately owned, shorter version of a 737 with a wingspan 3 inches short of the limit did land there once, in 2018, according to The Aspen Times, which reported “no one noticed.”)  

Bartholomew said the CRJ700s “are totally aging out,” with Aspen “the only airport in the country that is solely reliant on them. That’s a tough position for an airline to be in. Now they’re keeping an aircraft around for one market. Eventually the airlines will phase them out.” 

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Therein lies one of the constraints Pitkin County, as airport owner, is juggling. 

The current runway is deteriorating and will need to be replaced in a matter of a few years. Over the past two years it has been shut down for weeks at a time for repairs. Bartholomew said reconstruction will cost up to $100 million and in order to get the money, the county will have to agree to the FAA’s terms.

First they must submit an airport layout plan, updated from one created in 2016, which included expanding the separation, because in the previous plan the westernmost runway sat too far to the west and thus too close to a cluster of shale bluffs that some perceived as hazardous to the new flight path. In the new plan, the taxiway moves east.

“We’re currently going through the ALP revision process,” Bartholomew said, and if the new one doesn’t include the wider separation, the FAA could deny funding for improvements for the entire airport. This includes the terminal, which Clapper said will hopefully build on its origin story and become “net zero.” 

But Lovins said that while the CRJ700s “are aging, which is true, it’s an unwarranted assumption that this means they are about to retire, causing us to have to move quickly to get the bigger planes.” He wrote as much in one of the many essays he has also submitted to the county and public, via the Aspen media, on various airport-related subjects. 

“Even the county’s lead consultant on forecasting says they can run for another 20 years, and that would be consistent with industry practice,” he told The Sun. “When you have a plane that is working well and making a lot of money in a very lucrative station, you want to keep it working. So this claim of saying the CRJ needs to be retired is like saying someone 35 is about to retire so you need to start looking for a replacement.” 

And Anderson believes the county is engaging in a game of “verbal judo” when it comes to claims it has made about widening the runway. 

Aspen Fly Right’s push for “flying right”

Anderson sounds irritated when she talks about how the county communicates about the runway. 

“They say, ‘You know, the runway is getting beat up’ and there’s no doubt it is, but it doesn’t have to be fixed this year or next. That’s where they play verbal trickery. They say, ‘as long as we have to redo it, let’s make it bigger.’ It’s like saying ‘oh, the time to replace your roof is when the sun is shining.’ I agree. Absolutely. But that does not mean you have to make the roof bigger.”

Lovins added “quite a few commercial jets are still running that are 40-50 years old because they’re so well-suited to their mission.” He also said the county has approved a short-term replacement for the CRJ, roughly its size, “so that doesn’t support the wider-runway thesis either.”

There are several other reasons Fly Right opposes the runway expansion. A big one for Anderson is safety. She was the Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy starting in 1981 and became the county Emergency Management Coordinator in 2003. In 2001, a chartered Gulfstream III business jet flying into the airport from Los Angeles crashed on final approach. All 18 people on board died, including a well-known L.A. film executive. Aspen saw human carnage on a scale most had never encountered.

Anderson wonders whether Aspen EMS has the capacity to deal with an even bigger disaster. New services have recently come online — an ambulance barn and station at the Aspen hospital, a growing Aspen fire department — but she fears training has been limited. What if a plane carrying 140 people crashed?

Two older women walk past private jets on the tarmac
Aspen resident Ellen Anderson, left, is a longtime observer of operations at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. She and Susan Taylor, also pictured, want the airport to continue allowing the size of planes it currently does, making it “better, not bigger.” (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“The CRJ700 holds about 70 people, the same number as one of our public transportation buses, so our first responders practice with 70 potential victims,” she said. “But if one Airbus with 140 passengers is brought in, like what the forecast is calling for, that’s twice as many people. Our first responders are wonderful, but they’d be overwhelmed.” 

On their website, the group cites noise, air pollution, climate-harming emissions and a “defective public process” as more reasons for why the expansion should be stopped. Also: Important information provided to the public has been incorrect. Independent views are “systematically excluded.” And big decisions are made “out of the public’s vision.” 

Topping their list of ways the county has failed in the airport visioning process is “it was strongly driven by designers and moderators to consider only information provided and instructed by county staff to support the desired conclusion,” Lovins said. “Then serious exploration of those claims was shut down, so some of the most knowledgeable people in the valley about aviation simply quit or were assigned where they couldn’t do harm. We are told directly and indirectly that a lot of our information is wrong, but not once has the county told us what they think is wrong and why, and if they’re really concerned about mutual learning they should tell us and not just gripe about it.” 

They say, ‘You know, the runway is getting beat up’ and there’s no doubt it is, but it doesn’t have to be fixed this year or next. That’s where they play verbal trickery.

— Ellen Anderson, a co-founder and the treasurer of Aspen Fly Right

Documents requested through open records requests were “90% redacted,” Lovins claims. (They’re buried here.) Big decisions are made without public input, he added. (Although there is a public Airport Advisory Board with numerous spots and committees for people to join and weigh in on the process.) And “imprudent, risky choices are being treated as inevitable,” the website says, in a “process that could lead Pitkin County to invest more than a half-billion dollars in a flawed airport … unlikely to win Federal approval and funding, and unable to meet the community’s safety, health, and environmental goals.” 

Over the past year, Fly Right has campaigned against expansion and developed a study, run by citizen- and traditional scientists in the fields of physics, aviation and carbon pollution, examining the effects of aircraft emissions on humans. 

Aspen Airport flanked by homes and the Elk Mountain Range. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Their study looked at whether emissions created by planes revving up for takeoff floated into the children’s center at Buttermilk. Preliminary findings suggested carcinogenic particles are detectable in the air hundreds of meters away from the runway, Lovins told a crowd of 60 at a town hall in March. As these particles leave the engine, they create toxic or carcinogenic coatings that are highly reactive and inflammatory in the body, he said. The aim of the study was to show proof that these particles exist in quantities that are harmful to humans and to forecast how bigger planes not built to green energy standards will send more toxic fumes into the children’s center. 

Airport director Bartholomew said Fly Right “hasn’t communicated a whole lot of raw data to us,” so he “doesn’t know what to think about it, or whether the equipment was good, or how they analyzed their data. And I don’t know how they’d separate out emissions from State Highway 82, which often has a half-mile backup of cars, from the airport emissions.” 

Lovins insists the data is “solid and straightforward,” it’s just not ready for publication yet. “Several experts are working on that,” he said, “and Fly Right will publish as soon as they can.”  

One other argument Fly Right holds for why the county could maintain the status quo in terms of flight size is that it could pay for upgrades on the airport and runway itself by taking over operations of a current third-party operator, and route the money the operator makes on things like jet fuel into its own coffers, thereby sidestepping the need for FAA funding. But Bartholomew says that is faulty thinking, because “the FAA will still have the authority on what we build, and with them looking to put in hundreds of millions over next few years, there’s no chance we’re going to make that money selling fuel as a fixed base operator.”

One thing everyone agrees on, however, is no matter how the airport grows, it must be clean and green.

The wait for new technology 

Bartholomew says the county is dedicated to renovating the terminal and the parking area “with net-zero goals in mind.” In addition, the increased separation between the runway and taxiway will allow for more modern, cleaner and quieter aircraft to operate at the facility. Together these will help forward the community’s environmental goals of fewer emissions and noise reduction by 2030, he said.

With older planes, which lack some of the technology that helps pilots in severe weather, “if they have to divert a flight and bus people back to Aspen, the carbon footprint is larger,” he added. (Same goes for flights diverted because of runway traffic jams.) 

And Fly Right isn’t the only group trying to understand the negative effects of airplane emissions on humans. Bartholomew said the county is gearing up to start monitoring them with the goal of reduction.

“That’s what’s so frustrating,” Clapper said. “It’s like, we want to pay attention to growth. We want to pay attention to noise and emissions. We want to electrify the airport and make it one of the greenest terminals ever seen, because we have the federal funding to do that. So if it means some expansion of the runway, or you know, one of these other things people are against, we are doing the best we can to be transparent and truthful.” 

An airport in suspended animation 

When Hunter S. Thompson was alive, he lived near the town of Woody Creek, directly under the flight path of the Aspen airport.  

Anderson lives under the flight path in Aspen Village, where, she says, planes “strafe” her house.

Bartholomew says the group has a legitimate complaint. But it’s the kind of thing Vaughan might point to when he speaks of “the people in Aspen who tend to remember the way things were 10 to 50 years ago.”  

“Across the United States, it’s been the case for decades that there is competition for power in terms of who gets to make the decisions regarding airports and how they’re going to be run,” he added. “You’ve had competition. You’ve had a disagreement. And very often you will hear people saying, ‘We who live in the vicinity of the airport with all the jets flying over our heads, we should be able to decide what kind of planes fly in and out of here.’ Yet, generally speaking, the local community does not get to decide, due to federal law.” 

A private plane approaches Aspen Airport above homes in Woody Creek area. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

That doesn’t sit well with Lovins, who insists the FAA is not “the final answer” for the future of the airport, because currently only one person, John Bauer, manager of the Denver Airports District Office, is weighing in, and to do what he wants to do, which is widen the runway, “he would have to go higher in the FAA to people who have different values.”  

The congressional delegation who helped the private pilots “force” the FAA to give them equal landing rights way back in the 1990s could weigh in, too, he said. “And, of course, all of us would like to see a collaborative project with the commissioners and the FFA but I’m afraid that’s not where we’re heading.” 

Then he thinks about the fact that some members of the Fly Right group live in the place Hunter S. Thompson did when he started his campaign against the airport. He knows some people think they want fewer planes flying directly over their homes. He knows NIMBY is associated with their name. 

“That slam you quote is very common and not properly respectful of the legitimate interests of people living under the flight path. It isn’t something a thoughtful person would say,” he said. “Aspen Fly Right does not represent or engage institutionally with any particular community. We’re interested in the whole valley and users in all parties in all places at all times. We are not a lobbying org. We don’t represent a particular locality. We’re just trying to look at the totality of this very complex set of issues and provide better information to support a wider process that will yield a better airport for all.” 

Bartholomew thinks everyone does want a better airport. But to get there, he said the community needs to agree to modernize the airfield to allow cleaner and quieter aircraft in order to become eligible for federal funding to make it a greener facility.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 8:10 a.m.,Oct. 9, 2023, to correct several errors. Barry Vaughan lives in El Jebel, which is in Eagle County. Ellen Anderson lives under the Aspen Airport flight path in Aspen Village, across the river from Woody Creek. Her collection of memorabilia includes buttons from the No 737s campaign, but not a poster from Hunter S. Thompson’s run for sheriff. And it was Eagles front man Don Henley who underwrote the campaign. Anderson, a former Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy starting in 1981, was the county Emergency Management Coordinator in 2003. And when necessary, commercial flights are typically diverted to Grand Junction but not Rifle.

Tracy Ross writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, industry, social justice and rural life from the perspective of someone who grew up in rural Idaho, lived in the Alaskan bush, reported in regions from Iran to Ecuador...