SFO Delay Resolution?

Thursday, October 21, 2004
Open Forum
A small, fast way to end SFO delays
By Stanford M. Horn
The San Francisco (CA) Chronicle

San Francisco International Airport’s decades-long arrival/delay problem during foggy and cloudy weather could be solved … tomorrow. The solution involves little expense and no bay fill, time-consuming studies, a quagmire of permits, decades of construction and involvement by a plethora of consultants and lawyers. It’s so simple that it’s puzzling that airport management and its consultants — who spent five years and $75 million studying the delay problem — never proposed it.

For years, the airport has explained that the half-century-old airfield runway pattern can handle 60 arrivals an hour in good weather on two parallel runways. That’s much more than adequate for all of SFO’s traffic. But when fog or clouds move in, one landing runway is closed because it’s only 750 feet from the other, below federal separation minimums. The result: only 30 landings an hour. That causes multiple-hour delays for SFO passengers and expensive fleet repositionings across the nation.

The situation has made airlines reticent to inaugurate new service here. Consequently, SFO has missed out on much of aviation’s tremendous growth during the past two decades. For example: In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2003, SFO carried fewer passengers (29.2 million) than it did in fiscal 1987 (29.3 million). SFO dropped from fifth busiest in the United States in 2000 to 13th this year, according to Airports Council International, which also reports that since 2000, SFO has lost more passengers than any airport worldwide.

That’s the bad news. The potential good news is foretold by a simple study I undertook of SFO arrivals: Small commuter planes that carry a tiny percentage of the passengers on any given day are responsible for delaying the vast majority who arrive on big aircraft. If those smaller craft could be diverted in bad weather to other regional airports, SFO could finally start ending delays and perhaps bring back business.

My study shows that during the fog-prone hours from 9 a.m. to noon, 97 percent of SFO’s arriving passengers during that period land on full-size jets. The other 3 percent of arriving passengers are almost all on small 30- to 50- passenger short-distance “regional” jets and prop aircraft linking SFO primarily with small cities in California and Oregon.

In poor weather, big-plane arrivals between 9 a.m. and noon never exceed the capacity of 30 landings an hour. Only the presence of the regional craft, with their 3 percent of arriving passengers, push the number of landings over the delay threshold and keep SFO from maintaining a good on-time record.

That 3 percent can get to SFO on time in a way that won’t tie up limited SFO airspace for the other 97 percent. Here’s how:

As soon as controllers move SFO to a single-runway operation, a new protocol would go into effect. The small-craft passengers would continue to reach SFO, pretty much on time, but via a ground-transfer station — either the Hayward Air Terminal, Half Moon Bay Airport or Moffett Field. Each is a well-equipped facility with runways of at least 5,000 feet. (Half Moon Bay, in fact, was used as a successful alternate airport decades ago.)

Each of these airports is within a 20- to 40-minute bus link to SFO. Passengers would step from the small plane onto a waiting bus (which would also carry their luggage) and be whisked to SFO. (By comparison, even if the small planes land on time at SFO itself, it often takes those passengers 30 minutes more as their plane taxis to a remote bus-loading area, from which they are shuttled to a main terminal).

The few morning outbound “regional” jet passengers would have to wait at SFO until small planes were again allowed. But these passengers must wait under current conditions, too, so they would be no worse off.

This plan’s benefits are numerous:

  • SFO could attract business it’s missing now. JetBlue and Southwest have pointed to SFO’s delays as reasons they’re not there; with on-time dependability, more travelers could gain from those carriers’ low fares.
  • The Hayward, Half Moon Bay and Moffett fields would gain revenue. Because SFO reports rainy, foggy or cloudy conditions about a quarter of the mornings of the year during the 9 a.m. to noon period, when 15 small planes are scheduled to arrive daily, those airports could count on considerable landing revenue from about 1,350 flights annually.
  • Major carriers at SFO would save money. United alone could save tens of millions annually if its passengers didn’t miss connections. With an estimated 40,000 passengers arriving too late to make their connections to major airline departures, a lot of money is at stake.
  • Small-craft carriers would also benefit. Their planes would be able to stick to their schedules, instead of being stuck in SFO for hours or trying to fly there.
  • Regional passengers on the small planes wouldn’t miss domestic or once- a-day international flights because of SFO delays. They would arrive at SFO via a ground connection on time or earlier. They could count on being on time for local appointments, too.

    A test of this no-cost, no-fill, no-studies “transfer” concept could confirm how promising the idea is — and how each stakeholder would benefit.

    Stanford M. Horn writes on Bay Area transportation and development issues.