Runway extension making a difference

Flights already seeing an increase in capacity this winter
December, 28 2011
Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN — The extra 1,000 feet of runway space at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is already making an impact.

The $15.4 million runway extension project, completed in early November, was aimed largely at helping ease weight restrictions that forced commercial airlines to leave seats empty in order to take off. The problem was most acute during the summer, when higher temperatures are an issue.

The added runway length, however, has proven beneficial this winter, as well.

SkyWest Airlines, which operates United Express service to and from Aspen, has gained capacity for an additional eight to 10 passengers on some of its outgoing flights this winter, according to Marissa Snow, spokeswoman for the airline.

“We did anticipate the greatest gains being in the summer with the higher temperatures,” she said.

The combination of higher temperatures and altitude affects an aircraft’s efficiency, explained Jim Elwood, aviation director at the airport. Air molecules become less dense as temperatures rise and as altitude increases (Aspen is at 7,900 feet), impacting engine operation and the overall lift capability of the aircraft’s wings. Pilots need to account for the performance capability of the aircraft under those conditions by cutting weight — carrying fewer passengers, less fuel or less baggage.

Even United Express flights to Denver, a relatively short distance, realize benefits from the longer runway, as ski vacationers carry a lot of baggage that can now be accommodated, Snow said.

Airlines tried to anticipate weight restrictions by leaving seats unsold, but if it came down to bumping passengers or baggage, the latter went first.

“More often than not, it was the bags that got left behind,” said Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry.

Increasing the runway length from about 7,000 feet to 8,000 feet was key to American Airlines’ decision to start service to Aspen this winter, said an official with the airline when the American Eagle service was announced over the summer. American is offering nonstop service in winter and summer between Aspen and both Los Angeles and Dallas.

The extra runway space makes those long-distance flights, which require more fuel weight, feasible, according to Tomcich.

“We couldn’t make the numbers work prior to that 1,000 feet,” said Gary Foss, vice president of planning and marketing for American Airlines in announcing the airline’s entry into the local market.

In the past, SkyWest has left an average of eight seats empty in the wintertime to fly United Express flights nonstop from Aspen to Chicago, according to Tomcich. The flight hasn’t been doable in the summer without a stop in Denver to refuel. The United Express flight to Los Angeles left at 8 a.m. over the summer to take advantage of lower morning temperatures.

When Delta served Aspen, with connections to Salt Lake City and Atlanta during the winter, it was leaving 15 seats empty in order to take off for the long-distance haul to Atlanta, Tomcich said. Delta pulled out of the local market at the close of the 2009-10 ski season.

The airport’s now-longer runway doesn’t open the airport to larger jets — weight and wing-span limits are unchanged — but resort officials have long hoped the project would attract more regional service by making flights financially feasible for the airlines.

The Federal Aviation Administration paid for the bulk of the runway project; the airport’s share was $2.4 million.



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