SFO Needs to Be Fixed One Way or Another

With 2012 over, it’s fun to look back on performance statistics to see what stands out. For me, it’s SFO and its lagging on time performance that once again sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ve long felt that it wouldn’t be fair to restrict traffic at SFO just because things go downhill on bad weather days, but I’m reconsidering my position. Assuming Virgin America stays in business, delays are only going to increase and a regulatory solution may the only short term option that will work. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the problem at hand.

The Problem
For those who aren’t aware, San Francisco has a runway problem that can make life miserable for travelers when the weather gets bad. Let’s look at a visual to make some sense of this.

SFO Today

As you can see, SFO has two sets of parallel runways which are perpendicular to each other. That in itself isn’t a terrible design for places where the winds can shift since you generally want to go into the wind when you can. The standard operation at SFO has most departures using runways 1L and 1R. Arrivals along with some long haul and Hawai’i departures usually use runways 28L and 28R.

This works great when the weather is good with up to 60 arrivals per hour. The problem is when the weather isn’t good. Those parallel runways are separated by a mere 750 feet. Nobody would ever design an airport that way today because when the weather goes downhill, you lose the ability to land on both runways at the same time. What defines bad weather? It’s poor visibility that matters. If you’ve landed at SFO, you know that you can get pretty close to an airplane next to you in good weather. When you lose that visibility, it kills the arrival rate.

This might not be a huge issue for some places, but SFO is extremely fog-prone, to put it mildly. So any time low clouds roll in, the airport gets snarled. Does it happen a lot? Oh yeah.

The Stats
According to Doug Yakel at SFO, the airport can operate with its full 60 arrival-per-hour capacity about two-thirds of the time. Of course a lot of those hours may be in the middle of the night when demand is less, so it may not be a perfect way to measure how often capacity constraints really cause problems. When the weather gets bad, arrival rates are traditionally cut in half or even more if a runway shift is needed. Thanks to something called PRM/SOIA, SFO can sometimes land around 35 airplanes per hour in poor visibility. Starting next summer, that rate will be even easier to achieve without PRM/SOIA thanks to FAA procedure changes, but it won’t change that fact that operations are severely curtailed in bad weather compared to the regular 60-per-hour rate.

Where does this leave us? While people usually associate the New York airports with being the most delayed, SFO is right up there and quite often worse. For the 12 months ending November 2012, the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows SFO with about 71 percent of arrivals occurring within 14 minutes of schedule (the DOT definition of on time). Of the 29 largest airports in the US, only Newark (70 percent) and LaGuardia (77 percent) came even close. Nobody else was below 80 percent. It’s the same story with cancellations. At 2.25 percent of flights canceled, only Newark (3.07), LaGuardia (3.36), and Washington/National (2.43) had higher numbers.

But these numbers only tell a small piece of the tale. The bigger issue is how this impacts small communities that rely on SFO service.

The Real Pain is Felt in Small Cities
When the weather gets bad, airlines have to decide how to slow down their operations. In general, the flights that impact the fewest, least important people are delayed the most or even canceled if needed. That means regional flights to smaller cities get hit hardest. (Yes, I’m mostly talking about the big hub carrier here – United.)

This chart uses data from masFlight and shows the number of flights arriving within 14 minutes of schedule at SFO from cities in the general region for all of 2012.

SFO On Time Percent for Select Cities

As you can see, there are a couple of cities that do ok but then there are plenty that get hit hard. For that reason, people in this area know to build in pretty hefty connecting times if they want to go anywhere, but on time performance is only a part of the problem.

This chart shows the percent of flights that were canceled going from these cities into SFO in 2012.

SFO Cancellation Rates for Select Cities

It’s bad, really bad. Monterey sees more than 10 percent of all flights canceled. At least the people there have the ability to drive to San Jose or SFO without too much trouble. But good luck doing that from Crescent City or many of these other ones that see more than 5 percent of flights canceled.

I would say that I can only imagine how difficult this is for people living in those areas, but I’ve dealt with it first hand. We had plenty of calls at Cranky Concierge from people stranded in the area over the holidays. We even found out that gate agents at one airport were suggesting people call us because they couldn’t find options!

The Solution
So look, the problem is a big one. How do we fix it? Well there are plenty of ways. If we were building a brand new airport, we’d smack the person who designed this one and instead ask them to do this:

An SFO Proposal

With this kind of spread between runways, SFO could handle the normal number of operations whether in clouds or sun. But to do that now is a very expensive proposition. And there are plenty of environmentalists in the Bay Area who would have a fit.

So what else can we do? Well, as usual, technology should be the solution. The reason that those airplanes can’t land at the same rate in clouds as they can in sun is because current technology isn’t accurate enough to guarantee that they’re actually far enough apart. I say “current” technology, but I really mean the technology that is being used in air traffic control today. There’s nothing current about that.

The FAA finally got Congress to approve funding for the so-called NextGen air traffic control system which, if done right, should have far better accuracy. There’s no reason that airplanes shouldn’t be able to land the same in poor weather as they do in clear weather. We just need better technology to make that happen.

Will we get it? Eventually, yeah. But it’s going to be years and years before that happens. So what do we do in the meantime?

I hate to say it, but I think it might be time to start doling out slots. The FAA has already started moving in that direction by designating SFO as a Level 2 airport, but that is one step below actually restricting access.

There are real problems with slots, of course. First, if airlines have to cancel flights, it’s likely those smaller nearby cities that lose out most. But at least the flights that remain will actually go. Also, it’s hard to know the exact number that should be handed out, because arrival rates can swing so much depending upon the weather. But we need to find a way to cancel fewer flights. That probably means having fewer flights to begin with.

Travelers may love the idea of more on time flights, but there is a price to be paid as well. Basic economics explains that if we restrict the number of flights, prices are going to rise to get supply and demand back into an equilibrium.

So what would you rather have? Lower fares or more on-time flights? I’ve always leaned more toward lower fares, but I’m now leaning the other way more and more. Something has to give.

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68 Comments on "SFO Needs to Be Fixed One Way or Another"

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Frank
Guest

Your “functional proposal” of building new runways with greater separation is ultimately the right one, and in a perfect world, the airport authority could mitigate the environmental damage by rehabilitating a larger and/or more vital area elsewhere. However, for your readers’ benefit, they should be aware that when SEA added a third runway for just this reason, it cost $1.1 billion and took 14 years to get done, mostly due to resolving various lawsuits.

sjc user
Guest

What you have proposed for SFO has actually been proposed and the “Save the Bay” people would have none of that discussion.

Also, SFO is part of the City and County of San Francisco despite its location between San Bruno and Millbrae. So, you are dealing with an inept SF Board of Supervisors who will never do anything about their airport. Maybe they will make the airport more bike friendly with bike lanes though.

John C
Member

Actually, SFO is in San Mateo County, but owned and operated by SF. So in addition to the fun of dealing with SF politics, it has to deal with San Mateo County as well.

Xiao
Guest

Keeping the city in a bad shape (see housing supply) would only get more and more people to move to places like Huston at far higher cost to the global environment.

Ultimate level of self-righteous NIMBY extreme local environmentalism.

umbelifer
Member
The reason(s) for the lengthy litigation at SEA was because the Port of Seattle was not truthful in it’s initial assertions; the Port of Seattle did everything it could to avoid mitigation to the four (4) wetlands they ruined with the fill for the third runway; the Port of Seattle was hostile to neighboring community concerns; the Port of Seattle is STILL dragging it’s feet on promised noise mitigation from the building of the second runway many years ago; the Port of Seattle bribed the community of SeaTac to change their opposition to the expansion by promising a significant cut… Read more »
Neil
Guest

Lived in SF for 12 years, and endless delays makes me agree with this a lot. Also, nothing like landing in the fog and popping into the clear seconds before the wheels hit the runway.

Of course, now LGA is main airport, so clearly I’m a glutton for punishment.

angerson
Member

Cranky is right again! SFO (I live in the Bay Area) is often a weather problem. It is my recollection there was a start on the matter of re-spacing the runways some years ago, and then a recession hit and that was the end of the project. It is possible that environmental concerns also stopped the project. Needless to say, landing and departure issues may curtail airline desire to schedule flights @ SFO.

SEAN
Guest

Ah, how should I put this, it’s San Francisco & fog is always going to be an issue regardless how the airport & it’s runways are configgured. Anyway, some improvement is better than no improvement at all. It maybe better to restrict the number of regional flights as a first step to unclog SFO.

Red
Member

Cranky on your proposal would you keep the now 28R and 1R and make them into 28C and 1C with the two new runways becoming 28R and 1R or would you still have the four runways with 28R and 1R basicly becoming reef runways like 8R in HNL?

Frank
Guest

@SEAN, the issue is that there’s too little separation between the parallel runways, so when visibility drops below a certain threshold, only one of them can be used at a time.

@Jeremy, in SEA, they left the original 34L and made it 34C, with the idea being that since the new 34L is a longer taxi, they would only use it when needed.

David SF eastbay
Member
For eons it seems the answer was land fill to extend the airport more into the bay to put space between 28L/28R. Enviromental issues would be taken care of by what was taked away from the west bay, would be added to the east bay. Hoping land/sea/air animals would know to move over to the east bay to live, breed, rest etc. Guess they would put up signs for the animals to read (????) But like anything else, the same people who complain about SFO operations in bad weather and want something done, also complain about any solutions to fix/help… Read more »
Wyodog
Guest

Any wagers on which will happen first at SFO: NextGen increasing the current approach rate, a new runway, or hell freezing over?

Eric
Guest

I love SFO-MRY. My first four times “flying” the route were via yellow cab.

As always, love the graphs. Thanks Cranky.

A
Guest
Why not pull a Denver and move the entire airport somewhere else where you have land to do a proper airport setup. Ha ha, I know land is not cheap or available in the Bay Area, but last time I flew into SFO I was heading up to Marin County – not an easy trip from the airport. No good north bay airport. Remember, the area also has Oakland and San Jose airports. You have other options. I get that SFO is the big international hub, but for O/D traffic I’d rather fly through Oakland. Just my 2 cents.
Todd
Guest

Blech. DEN’s location is terrible–practically in Kansas. And in any case, the Bay Area does not have large areas of flat, undeveloped land like Denver does.

As far as flying into the North Bay, STS in Santa Rosa has some service by Alaska to a few west coast cities.

Evan
Guest
Slots are an extremely costly and inefficient way to solve this particular problem. It works in NYC and DCA — but there you have a simpler demand vs. capacity problem regardless of weather. The slots are designed to keep the airport in normal operating range in good weather. They, too, fail miserably in bad weather. At SFO, you’d never put the slot count such that the runways had extra capacity during sunny days (2/3 of the time, right? And the clouds/fog tends to be worse overnight — it clears during midday, so the 2/3 time is believable). A few potential… Read more »
Kevin
Guest

Regarding #2, Crescent City is the only city served from SFO that is EAS, and that’s only 2 departures per day. So, EAS can’t be much help here (or take much blame).

Jim M
Guest
Evan had some interesting ideas — some which will work and some which just don’t. I live in Chico (CIC) and the joke is that if you want a reliable flight to San Francisco try an Indian train. The 6 AM departure from CIC is your only good bet — the plane is in Chico and it will almost always leave (7 AM arrivals are pretty sparse). The trickier part is getting home. Since you are in the middle of the day if you are lucky the flight is only 90 min. late. Unlucky? Cancelled. Ready to add insult to… Read more »
Exiled Antipodean
Guest

On the other hand, the terminal layout at SFO is superior to many competing airports such as LAX. I prefer to connect over SFO when heading to Australia or New Zealand, since delays or not, SFO is a nicer airport to be in.

apanelli
Member

Does the new technology need to be deployed nationwide simultaneously, or can it be deployed airport by airport?

If the latter, then I would gladly pay an extra $1-2 per takeoff/landing to help pay for it now.

sjc user
Guest

There is an airport in the Bay Area’s largest city that is not even close to capacity, SJC. While it makes sense for UA to consolidate its operations at its SFO hub, I really wish that AA and DL would use SJC for more flights since there is a huge population (San Jose is the tenth largest city in the USA) and many tech companies very close to SJC.

sjc user
Guest
Cranky, I was thinking of adding flights to SJC so that people like me who live close to SJC don’t have to make the trek to SFO to go anywhere. There are no flights east of Chicago that are not a red-eye out of SJC these days. It’s very difficult to fly from SJC and get a connection to a smaller east coast or southeast city due to the lack of flights. If some more flights are added to SJC for keep people from trekking to SFO, it can only help SFO. As much as San Franciscans hate going to… Read more »
Travis
Guest
Good article Cranky. I am a SkyWest dispatcher and Hub Coordinator at SkyWest and I can tell you, you hit the nail on the head. During the days I work the SFO hub desk (which is usually twice a week), I experience flow on more days than not. The list of cancellations you listed are predominantly all SkyWest EMB-120 turbo-prop stations (in fact, most of the listed stations are entirely SkyWest served). There are two really important factors on why we cancel or EMB flights (as opposed to CRJ flights) that most people are not aware of. First, most SKW… Read more »
Johnny Plane
Guest

Really interesting read. Can you explain ‘flow’ a little more?

Travis
Guest
Like CF just added, Flow is Flow Control. It’s an ATC initiative to limit the amount of traffic when they have more than they can handle. With most of the major airports like JFK or SFO this is in the form of a Ground Delay Program (GDP) where ATC holds and delays flights on the ground rather than airborne holding patterns. Using the SFO scenario, a beautiful no issue day puts SFO landing up to 60 planes per hour. When they are unable to do visual approaches to maintain separation with the other aircraft, they will typically drop to a… Read more »
Sanjeev M
Guest

Great stuff! Thanks a lot for this insight. Yeah the balancing of mainline and regional, load factor, aircraft routing, its simply amazing!

Historically LAS and PHX have also pulled regional California, and I wonder if it would help if there were good Asian connections on a single alliance so that these people wouldn’t need to connect in SFO. Of course SFO (along with LAX) is probably the larger O&D market for inner California.

pddee
Member
I’m a United Airlines guy and Monterey is my home airport; sadly, I’ve been stranded several times and/or cancelled-out due to weather related issues at SFO. Flying back east now often takes me through LAX rather than SFO. I wonder if there were flights out of Monterey to San Jose for all those making connections to either up north or back east if that would work. Right now United only flies one flight a day to Denver and only three each (I believe) to SFO and LAX. While Monterey is really close for me, the uncertainty of getting out or… Read more »
jaybru
Member
Any stats on percentage breakdown by SFO-terminating vs. SFO-connecting pax? From DC, on UA, I’ve landed at SFO hundreds of times, but only on a rare occasion did I use SFO as a final destination. Connections, for which I could have used LAX, SAN, PHX, LAS, or even PDX or SEA, but the choice was pretty much what UA wanted to sell me. [Admittedly, for me, someone who loves the window views, SFO’s great, but…! It would be nice if we could simply relocate our airports every time an airline changed routes, hubs, or decided to go the regional route.… Read more »
cedarglen
Guest
If asked, I say that this is the BEST general focus aviation/travel blog on thee net. Why? Two primary reasons: 1) The daily subject matter is usually on-topic and relevant to a wide variety of aviation and travel readers and 2) It is one of the very few written by a blogger with a reasonable command of the English language. Let’s face it folks, far too many bloggers present wonderful, relevant information but with the writing skill of second graders. Bret’s work leaps beyond that handicap and his posts are a genuine pleasure to read. How he does it, I… Read more »
George
Guest
Great article Cranky! I lived in the Bay Area when this idea of new runways for SFO surfaced in the late 80’s. What SFO wanted to do was the runways and new International Terminal with BART. Well we know what they got, but the thing that really killed the new runways was not so much the enviromental movement in the Bay Area-most groups had bought off on the plan to reestablish wetlands in the East Bay in exchange for the runways-rather it was what was required for the fill to put the runways on. It was something in the order… Read more »
Andy
Guest

They got close to reconfiguring in the late 90’s only to have it shelved after 9/11. It won’t change anytime soon. It is also bad now because Skywest has had many flights shipped over to the old CO gates while they rebuild the old E/60 pier where AA used to be.

I live and work in the Bay Area. Despite being a UA Gold, I do as much of my North/South winter flying as possible from Oakland on WN because OAK is more reliable.

Kheart359
Member

Weather not the only problem….ENDLESS revamping of concourses….our United flight “drove around” from one side of the airport to the other looking for a place to dock and deplane….several folks on our flight missed their connecting flights to elsewhere…..this occurred in September ’12….will this become worse rather than better? Who knows…….

Bobber
Guest

Love SFO. Period.

Train Tunnel under the bay (subaquaBART) to form transfer passenger link SFO and OAK; move more domestic/shorter haul traffic to OAK, run more long-hauls from SFO.

Nick Barnard
Member

Why is the focus on building two new runways? If they could get one new runway wouldn’t that help immensely?

David M
Guest
Only as long as the winds continue to favor which runways get pushed further apart (presumably the 28s as they’re the primary arrival runways). I’ve landed in bad weather on the 19s, and then there’s the one day a year or so they land on the 1s (what Cranky’s map doesn’t show is the hills south of the airport that make this a rather interesting approach). If they’re going to do it, and I agree they should, they might as well do it right and push both sets of runways further apart. MRY is another city to add to Travis’… Read more »
CloseToSJC
Guest
UA and other airlines really need to expand into SJC. San Jose is the 10th largest city in the US. I work very close to SJC so I’m biased…but then so are the other millions who are close by who would rather fly out of SJC. I know so many people who begrudgingly trek up to SFO to deal with delays because, for example, United has no flights east of DEN or IAH. If they opened up even one flight each to IAD, EWR, and ORD, that would free up quite a bit of traffic and those flights would be… Read more »
Jeremy
Guest
I fly Southwest on a very regular basis. Most of my flights are inter-Cal, or Vegas. I almost ALWAYS fly out of OAK, even though I live in SF proper. For the simple reason, I KNOW my flight will be on time. Many of the SFO or OAK flights come from a connecting spot such as DEN, LAS, or even LAX. The SNA flights just do out and backs all day long. Once flow control kicks in, you are pretty much guaranteed a 2 hour delay on the ground. If you are scheduled into SFO, Southwest is awesome about letting… Read more »
Fred
Guest

In my experience, most airlines will let you switch to alternate airports with delays like this. Trouble is, almost no airlines have very many flights into SFO as well as OAK or SJC (except Southwest and perhaps Alaska).

robertmack
Member
This is kind of out there, but how about just get high speed rail done? With the rail line planned to go to Modesto, Fresno, Los Angeles, Burbank, ONT, Orange County and SD, you could easily remove TONS of flights from the airport, much like how AF doesn’t fly between Brussels and Paris anymore because of HSR – and SFO is supposed to have a station just like CDG. If trains replaced 90% of the flights b/w SFO and those destinations, that would free up tons of room and help prevent backups from the fog. Granted with the pace that… Read more »
mharris127
Guest
The solution is simple. Any city less than 300 miles away cannot fly into SFO (or OAK-Oakland, CA which is less than 30 miles from SFO). If businessmen can’t drive that distance they don’t need to go there. We here in Michigan don’t fly unless the trip is out of state although technically since GRR-Grand Rapids does fly trips to DTW-Detroit to connect to other cities (there are many cities not served by one of the two) it is possible to fly between those two cities but if Detroit or GR is the destination most still don’t fly between them… Read more »
qmwolfe
Member

A 5-6 hour car drive one way takes up a lot of time for a business trip. I see where you are coming from, but that is not practical for many business people.

RR
Guest
This is not allowed under current law but I would have airlines bid for the slots based on priority. So for every hour you would have slot 1 – 60. Slot 60 would be cancelled at the first sign of trouble, down to slot 1 if necessary, etc. Price would then be a factor on what airplanes went to SFO, the increase in the price of tickets in SFO would push passengers that could, to avoid SFO, which is what we want them to do. The airlines would change their route structure. If you’re flying from ACY-BOS, why are you… Read more »
DAB
Guest
I’ll tell you exactly why I go to SFO when I go to the bay area: I have options at SFO on UA. On Southwest or US, there is one way from point A to point B when you get later in the day from Oakland. Problem with their flights, and you are stuck there for hours at best. At least from SFO there may be a way to recover through LA or IAH or something (for some reason SFO – DEN doesn’t ever work for me…). I actually haven’t had too many problems at SFO that were weather related,… Read more »
RR
Guest

Oops…I meant ACV-BOS…not ACY.

davewhiteav8r
Member

The blithe assertion that “There?s no reason that airplanes shouldn?t be able to land the same in poor weather as they do in clear weather,” is a pipe dream with current OR foreseeable technology. The best nav accuracy with full GPS-WAAS setup in the approach phase is still too high to allow simultaneous approaches to runways this close. It’s not comfortable even on a clear and a million day! I’ve been based at SFO and the right answer is to move the runways further apart.

Brent
Guest
As a SkyWest pilot, I have to agree that SFO (San “FLOW”cisco) can be a huge headache when flow hits, especially flying the Brasilia to the closer cities like MOD,ACV,SMF,MRY, etc. Usually when flow hits it can hit hard that has huge ripples in the regional system. Remember one week back in Jan 2010, where SFO had a rare case of LIFR (VERY LOW Vis) that lasted till mid afternoon, and the central valley had the usual fog as well that lasted from mid afternoon till morning. This caused massive diversions landing in SFO (SJC had to turn away diversions… Read more »
Brent
Guest
My fav “Flow buster” as Travis can attest to is the RDD-SFO flight that is carrying “blood or medical whatever” since it will be considered a “LIFE FLIGHT”, which is considered a priority, thus NO FLOW. Have had flights from RDD-SFO that was suppose to have over 3 hrs of flow, but found out we had a blood delivery and “POOOF” flow is gone. Have heard that UA HATES THIS and has required more time before packages from this company to be dropped off and not last minute. Either way, did like the “FLOW” guide that at least used to… Read more »
semperfi74
Guest

“And there are plenty of environmentalists in the Bay Area who would have a fit.”- It’s a little more than that. The SF Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in 2008 barred the city from ever spending any money to fill in the bay for the purpose of airport expansion or runway realignment.

Ivan Bishop
Guest

Just fill in the part of the bay that needs filling. Sick of environmentalists who drive Leafs/Tesla and park their emissions somewhere else. It’s a crappy old airport runway layout. Just fix it. If the lawyers argue use them as landfill. So sick of delays at SFO.

Doug DeNunzio
Member

sfo is a fairly good airport when the weather is good. bad weather always hammers sfo, particularly low visibility and fog.

Doug DeNunzio
Member

using sfo is not a bad thing thing either particularly for regular fliers.

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