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Leadville airport expansion never gets off the ground

Brief by Central Staff

Transportation – October 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

For a few days last summer, there was some excitement in Lake County about expanding America’s highest airport to handle jetloads of skiers bound for Summit County.

But the excitement quickly cooled when state aviation officials told Lake County officials that no such expansion could be considered.

The excitement started at an August 15th meeting of the Summit County Leadership Forum in Frisco, just over Frémont Pass from Leadville. As it is, the main route to Summit’s ski resorts is a flight to Denver International Airport, followed by a few unpleasant hours on over-crowded and oft-closed Interstate 70.

There a consultant, Jim Sirhall, proposed commercial use of the Lake County Airport by extending the runway to 11,000 feet so that small jets — 50 passengers or less — could take off and land there. Expansion would also involve building a terminal and hangars.

“We could get people on the slopes in an hour or an hour and a half if they flew into Lake County,” county commissioner Charlie O’Leary said. Summit officials and ski operators expressed cautious support, as evidenced by Summit County Commissioner Gary Martin Lindstrom’s statement that “We would not discourage you from pursuing it.”

Sirhall, the consultant, had been hired by Lake County to help prepare a five-year review of airport operations required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

And that’s all it was supposed to be, according to Chris Pomeroy, a planner with the state Division of Aeronatics. This presentation went too far, since it would change the airport from a general-aviation facility to a commuter facility, something that requires the approval of, and funding from, the Federal Aviation Administration.

So, “The idea is now dead,” according to Sirhall.

Leadville’s airport, at 9,927 feet, is the third-highest in the world (two higher fields are in the Andes of South America), and is popular with private pilots; it also gets considerable use as a test facility on account of its altitude.

Even if this proposal is dead for the moment, it’s safe to predict that it or something similar will return. When we lived in Kremmling, there was talk of expanding McElroy Field to handle jets, and the airport could serve Steamboat, Summit County, and Winter Park, all about 50 miles away.

More recently, the FAA even approved a regional jetport for the Hartsel area in Park County — but Park County voters went to the polls to kill that idea.

The problem is that ski areas need to be in steep terrain with lots of snow, but airports need to be on flat terrain, and snow is no blessing in airport operations. So it’s hard to have an airport big enough to handle scheduled jet service within a reasonable distance of a ski area. Aspen has one, Vail is now getting considerable use out of the Eagle County Airport, and Crested Butte subsidizes flights into Gunnison — flights that are easy to notice if you happen to be in Gunnison when a low-flying jet arrives or departs.