A little-understood but critical economic underpinning of Chaffee County are its two airports; Salida Airport-Harriet Alexander Field, and Central Colorado Regional (Buena Vista) Airport. The two, together with Lake County Airport near Leadville, could form what the Federal Aviation Administration calls an aeronautical “system” achieving community and public safety efficiencies as a component of the nation’s transportation structure.
To understand that system approach, it’s necessary to put context around the nation’s aviation infrastructure. There are just under 20,000 airports in the United States of which 5,136 are public use and 14,112 are private use. There are some that exist as a dirt strip on a farmer’s land.
Of the 5,136 public use airports 95 percent of them are general aviation (GA). The term GA refers to all aspects of the aviation industry except scheduled passenger and cargo airiness and military flying.
There are almost 215,000 active aircraft in the United States with just over 19,000 being air carrier aircraft and the remaining 196,000 being general aviation aircraft – fixed wing or rotor.
The airports that knit our nation together are identified under the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). NPIAS airports receive federal funds because they are deemed to be important to the national transportation system.
The United States of America has more airports than in other country in the world. China has 507 airports and Russia has 1,200. The U.S. aviation system is considered to be the best system in the world, not just because of its airline service, but also because of its strong business aircraft system of airports and aircraft. Which brings the topic back to Chaffee County.
The 5,300 NPIAS airports together serve as part of a system, because an airport cannot function as a standalone facility. Every airport is a destination or a departure point for an aircraft trip. The Colorado Airport System includes a total of 74 public-use airports, of which 14 are categorized as commercial service airports and 60 categorized as non-commercial service general aviation airports.
Of Colorado airports, the system surrounding Denver International Airport is the best-known system in Colorado. It is comprised of DIA and the three surrounding Reliver Airports: Centennial Airport, Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and From Range Airport (now Colorado Air & Spaceport).
DIA is a federally funded public airport; open to all aircraft, scheduled airlines as well as general aviation (GA). However, if smaller, slower aircraft were mixed into the traffic flows of the airlines the airport would immediately reach gridlock and stop functioning at its standard arrival/departure rate.
DIA and every major hub airport in the U.S. has a reliever system of three to four GA airports, which have a primary responsibility of “relieving” the hub airport of inappropriate traffic.
While it easy to understand the need for the “system” approach to airports in large cities, the “system” approach is also valuable in smaller, rural communities such as Chaffee County. The FAA and Colorado Department of Transportation -Aeronautics like the “system” approach because it makes their job easier and is generally a more efficient way to manage public infrastructure.
Chaffee County has two very good airports, which compliment each other; one with a north-south runway setup, the other with an east-west runway. The Central Colorado Regional Airport (Buena Vista Airport) is unique for a small airport because its runway 15/33 is 8,300 feet by 75 feet wide and is published as 30,000 pounds single or dual wheel runway strength. However, the runway can accommodate aircraft up to 155,000 pounds on an infrequent basis. Additionally, the airport has a first-class terminal/FBO Hangar and several box hangars.
Harriet Alexander Field (Salida Airport) runway 6/24 is 7,347 feet by 75 feet and has a published strength of 30,000 single wheel and 60,000 dual wheel. The Airport has a classic GA terminal and several box hangars.
Some would ask why do we need two airports in the county when they are so close together? First, their runway arrangement constitutes a complete approach – providing approach and takeoff in all four directions depending upon conditions. Both have been used as wildlife fire fighting aviation staging areas in the past two years.
But the primary reason is that both airports are considered critical infrastructure; a substantial investment in both has already been made. Additionally, the airports contribute to the economic vitality of the communities they serve. The last economic impact study completed in 2013 by CDOT-Aeronautics. The study credited the Buena Vista and Salida Airports with a combined total economic impact of $7.8 million.
The vision for the Buena Vista Airport is to become a recognized economic engine for the Town of Buena Vista and Chaffee County. Specifically, the airport will develop its infrastructure to accommodate business and military turbine aircraft and establish the airport as a transportation hub for on-demand passengers and cargo.
Additionally, the airport will explore the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) market and opportunities to develop a niche market for this burgeoning industry.
That vision might be enhanced with a system approach that included the Salida Airport, but it depends on what the vision for the Salida Airport is and what the citizens of Chaffee County think about a system approach. The way forward is collaborative. In terms of aviation, it’s not Salida versus Buena Vista, it’s Chaffee County versus the rest of the world!
Dennis Heap, Chair
Central Colorado Regional Airport Advisory Board