San Francisco International Airport looks at ways to solve delays 

To reduce arrival delays at San Francisco International Airport, planners want to redirect more Bay Area flights to Oakland and San Jose and allow airplanes to land closer together in cloudy weather.

SFO was one of the country’s tardiest airports in the late 1990s, but operations tightened considerably after Sept. 11, 2001, when flight traffic declined. The reduction of traffic during the recession also helped keep delays down, but in recent years, SFO has again fallen behind the on-time national average.

Unless something is done to improve the situation, airport planners say arrival delays could set an all-time high by 2017.

“In the recession, airline traffic consolidated in San Francisco,” said spokesman John Bergener of the airport’s Bureau of Planning and Environmental Affairs. “We’d like to see that traffic branch back out to San Jose and Oakland.”

Bergener said the agency also favors greater use of Sonoma County Airport for local flights.

Because small planes require the same time to land as large planes but carry just a fraction of the passengers, another idea is for airlines to use larger planes whenever possible. That could reduce delays by 11 to 25 percent during the morning crunch, Bergener said, but it remains to be seen whether airlines will cooperate.

“It is regional aircraft that allow us to provide service to smaller communities that wouldn’t otherwise be able to support service and allows us to bring them to hubs like San Francisco and then to destinations worldwide,” United Airlines spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said.

Fifty-three percent of SFO’s flights are run by United or Continental airlines, which United purchased last year, so the airline giant’s cooperation in the new plan could be essential.

“It’s going to be a tough sell,” Bergener conceded. Discussions will take place at the airport’s next quarterly meeting in September.

Another series of solutions to reduce delays seek primarily to cope with SFO’s low visibility, which typically occurs for at least 60 minutes on half of all days.

These include permitting more closely staggered side-by-side landings on parallel runways; allowing pilots to land planes more closely together by using GPS devices; lowering the cloud ceiling under which SFO is able to conduct side-by-side landings from 2,100 feet to 1,600 feet; and outfitting pilots with screens that would depict the  location of surrounding aircraft.

Several of these changes will require the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is studying the impact of crosswinds at SFO to determine the safety of the proposal.

Bergener said the agency should determine whether to set new parameters by November, with potential changes taking effect in 12 to 15 months.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said his agency would do all it can to help SFO improve its on-time performance.


SFO arrival delays

1999 72,000 hours
2010 40,000 hours
2017* 72,000 hours

* projected

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