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.

66 Responses to SFO Needs to Be Fixed One Way or Another

  1. Frank says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

        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.

    • ancsteve says:

      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 of the revenue from the airport parking garage. At least the litigation was able to elicit some wetland mitigation and a promise to only use the much shorter third runway in inclement weather (ri-i-ight). I lived in a neighboring community for 10 years having come there in ’96, so was only an interested and impartial observer to the antics of the Port. To say no one trusts the Port of Seattle is an understatement.

  2. Neil says:

    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.

  3. nickg says:

    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.

  4. SEAN says:

    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.

  5. 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?

    • CF says:

      Jeremy – My proposal isn’t going to happen, so I haven’t put a ton of thought into it. I would probably just turn the existing runways into taxiways and then create new ones. I don’t know that the airport needs 3 parallels unless they’re spread out further.

  6. Frank says:

    @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.

  7. 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 fix the problem.

  8. Wyodog says:

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

  9. Eric says:

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

    As always, love the graphs. Thanks Cranky.

  10. A says:

    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 says:

      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.

  11. Evan says:

    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 ideas:
    1) Combine regional carrier on-time statistics into mainstream DOT reporting for the marketing carrier. This would punish UA for their regional’s poor performance, creating extra incentives for them to solve this problem independently. Right now, they don’t get dinged for all the small cities that get thrown under the bus on foggy days.

    2) Adjust the EAS program so that you don’t fill the slots with little props to cities with nobody on the planes. Maybe you find a way to fly with fewer flights on larger planes on foggy days? These are generally all connecting passengers, so good coordination with connecting schedules can mitigate the problem.

    3) UA can bus passengers on foggy days from Monterey and Modesto (example of 2), or replace flights to SFO with flights to LAX. More proactive and organized reduction of demand.

    4) Find creative ways of using SJC/OAK as overflow airports on foggy days. Tough on passengers, but could be better than canceling flights altogether.

    5) Big fan to blow the fog away.

    Okay, maybe getting towards the unreasonable side here, but you get the idea. There are things we can do working collaboratively between SFO, FAA/DOT, and airlines to mitigate some of the issues, albeit small-ball things.

    Unless we’re prepared to leave the airport well below capacity 2/3rds of the time, I don’t see how slots are an effective way to solve the problem. And frankly, the status quo is not prohibitive — it’s been going on, for years, and the world still turns and people still get where they need to be…albeit with some pain (pain I have experienced plenty of, myself).

    Evan

    • CF says:

      Evan – Lots of good thoughts here. Now, I agree that the issue is more often than not in the morning. So, put slots in for the morning only. It will mean that there will be excess capacity but that’s the only real option. I would love to know how often the mornings are fog-delayed. To respond to your other proposals.

      1) I don’t think this would do anything. There would need to be the same number of delays. Regionals are delayed first because fewer people are impacted. That wouldn’t change if reporting changed. I still think that should happen anyway, but I don’t think it solves this issue.

      2) That’s a pretty small number of flights, but it would help to cut down on EAS flights. Still, you can’t just switch to bigger planes on some days and not others. Nobody has that kind of fleet flexibility unless they want to start consolidating flights into a milk run. (Do Medford to Crescent City to Chico, etc. But then you still have terrible on time issues.)

      3) They do that already. That still doesn’t help people get their connections.

      4) I can’t imagine a situation where you can just switch operations to other airports on some days. The logistical nightmare is way too big.

      5) Yes!

    • Kevin says:

      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).

  12. Jim M says:

    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 injury? Often due to clouds departures from the east coast are delayed by 3 hours departing. So what happens? Its a night in SFO (or a car rental) due to a missed flight.

    Now at this point you can look at a map and say “Gee its a 90 min. drive to SMF, get over it” however SFO has quite a few more flight options which really speeds up travel. Its a bad system — and I thank Cranky for shedding some light on it (as I prep for a CIC-SFO-ORD-CLT flight this Sunday. . . .wish me luck. . . ).

  13. 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.

  14. AP says:

    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.

    • CF says:

      AP – While the technology could in theory be deployed airport by airport, the bigger issue is making sure every airplane that uses the airport has it installed and that every pilot is trained to use it.

  15. sjc user says:

    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.

    • CF says:

      sjc user – San Jose isn’t a good alternate. Yes, it gets all the silicon valley folks but the SF people don’t want to use it. Heck, they don’t even want to use Oakland. They did before there were good low cost options at SFO but the second they showed up at SFO, Oakland lost a ton. San Jose has its own decent population around the airport but it’s not replacement for SFO. (And while SFO has been working to reduce its high costs, San Jose keeps adding to theirs.)

    • sjc user says:

      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 SJC for a flight, us south bay folks think SFO is a long drive in the opposite direction.

      You’re right about costs, SJC has that white elephant of a terminal sitting there. It beats the old Terminal C by a long shot, but San Jose paid way too much for what they got.

      There is no way that SFO runway issue will be solved in our lifetimes. Not the way that city is run.

      • CF says:

        sjcuser – I can understand your frustration since it isn’t a fun drive. I had a conversation along these lines with someone who worked for SJC. He was convinced that there was a huge goldmine and that no airline was serving the market adequately. I told him if he thought that was true, then he should start his own airline. I guess I put more faith in the airlines in thinking that if there really is a strong opportunity to fly San Jose to the east coast and make money, they’d do it. I just don’t think there’s enough demand at prices that would generate a profit. Of course, the only way to prove that for sure is to start a flight and see if it works.

        • John says:

          San Jose is larger than San Francisco in population, not counting the surrounding areas of either city. Much of the peninsula and the southern part of the East Bay are closer to SJC than SFO or OAK.

          JetBlue’s red-eyes out of SJC to JFK and BOS are always packed. JetBlue used to run daytime flights as well, but they dropped them a number of years back even though they were full every time I took them. When flying with my kids, we usually end up flying SFO-JFK-SJC to avoid the red-eyes.

          San Jose has no delays and a decent population base, so I don’t know why no one has been able to make it work. AA used to have a mini-hub at SJC, but that was gone long before their latest issues. Southwest has a bunch of flights, but mostly just to LA/SD.

          • CF says:

            John – JetBlue is not in the habit of walking away from profitable routes. If the daytime flights were packed, they weren’t packed with good fares. And that’s part of the problem with San Jose. The population overall may be bigger, but there is more money to be made for the airlines in San Francisco.

          • sjc user says:

            I still find it odd that SFO would have significantly more business travel than SJC. Commute patterns here typically have more traffic tie ups going south out of SF than into SF in the AM. Most high tech companies are located from Palo Alto to North San Jose, which is closer to SJC than SFO.

            I think you’ll see a change when the delays get worse with more flights and a bad season of summer fog.

            Cranky – the B6 daytime flights to SJC went away during the huge fuel spike of 2008, along with UA flights to ORD and IAD, the CO flight to EWR and a few more.

  16. Travis says:

    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 EMB aircraft have over 10 scheduled flights per day (with some reaching up to 15 flights per/day). That is a ton of flying for one aircraft, even if it is just doing SFO-MRY roundtrips all day. So when flow is initiated (usually 16Z), it delays the entire aircraft’s line of flying into the morning wee hours into the next day. Obviously this creates huge amounts of strain on the system when you have pilots timing out and stations required to stay until 3am-ish.

    The next issue is United. Once flow starts, ATC gives all the airlines flying into SFO their ‘controlled wheels up’ time (as most of us already know). However, after that, United mainline comes in and stub amends our times to better help the overall operation of mainline. Most people, including me, can agree this is not necessarily a bad thing. Wouldn’t you rather have a 757 ORD-SFO be more on-time than a EMB MOD-SFO?

    So we, as coordinators, are stuck in a pretty tight spot. At SkyWest, we try to ONLY cancel roundtrips, meaning, those flights that roundtrip from SFO to an outstation on the same aircraft AND with NO crew change.
    PS – if you’re ever flying United Express SkyWest and are concerned that your flight might be cancelled for flow, take a look at how the aircraft is routed. If you’re on a flight SFO-SBP (for example), but the aircraft continues to the LAX system, then almost always, your flight will NOT cancel).
    After we get a list together of easy roundtrip cancels, then we start filtering out the flights with heavy pax loads, expect MRY. Whenever SFO is in flow, we almost always cancel 1 or 2 roundtrips to MRY. As stated, MRY is the most basic, simple cancel we can do. One – MRY is close to SFO so pax can drive if they need too. But most importantly, we can reflow pax from MRY through our LAX and DEN systems.
    MOD is different, we only fly there from SFO. However, passenger loads are almost always extremely light and that also makes for an easy cancel.
    CEC, OTH and ACV are usually easy cancels too. Coastal fog is always ready to show its ugly face, even when the TAF is relatively good. If one of these cities looks risky with weather, then I’ll cancel that.
    The rest of the cities listed are just simple roundtrip cancellations due to the flow.

    Bottom line, the cities listed in the article are predominately served by our SkyWest turbo-props, which always get the worst ‘wheels up’ time and that have the most flights per aircraft.

    Oh Cranky, you mentioned how SFO gets ugly when the weather is bad. Trust me dude, a simple fart in the wind will make that airport go into flow. I was working one time and a small cloud (in mostly clear skies) obstructed the towers view for the 28s. They immediately went into flow. And once SFO goes into flow, they cannot get out of it until the next day. BTW, that cloud passed in 20 minutes!!!

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

      • Travis says:

        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 30 or 35 rate. The weather requirements for a full rate at SFO aren’t only based on the weather reported at the airport. SFO’s visual approach requires aircraft to see each other by the time they reach the San Mateo bridge, which is about 6 miles out. Seeing clearly while that far out requires very few clouds below 2100 feet in the entire region (that’s not remotely considered bad weather in my opinion). This is a lot to ask for out of an airport almost completely surrounded by water. However, if winds force SFO to land south they will drop even further to a 26 rate due to conflicts with OAK and SJC traffic. When they do this, ATC will take all scheduled arrival times, and issue them a controlled time of arrival that will limit the number of arrivals each hour to a rate they can handle. The arrival time minus the enroute time gets you your wheels up time. This is the time everyone is concerned with because it’s the time you actually get to leave!

        To elaborate on my previous post about United and substituting times… United has a system that prioritizes all of its flight when flow begins. Obviously with higher loads and more international connections, typically mainline flights have higher priority than a lot of Express flights. United will then substitute times between flights, including both mainline and express, in order to help the higher priority flights to make their connections. Yes, this will take an already delayed flight, and make it even more delayed. If delays are bad enough, United may even ask its express carriers to cancel a certain number of arrivals creating room to get a few more flights closer to on time. This is a big part of why the smaller and closer airports served by regionals seem to take the blunt force of SFO problems, but I guess in United’s eyes, this sets them up for more satisfied customers than dissatisfied.

        • CF says:

          Travis – When I talked to SFO, they said that with PRM/SOIA they were able to reduce it to 1,600 ft now from 2,100 ft ceilings. Is that not the case for you guys?

    • Sanjeev M says:

      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.

    • CF says:

      Travis – Thanks for all this info. Great stuff.

      Johnny Plane – He’s talking about “flow control” which is when they have to restrict the number of arrivals that can come into the airport. They restrict the flow of traffic, if that makes sense.

  17. 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 in is always a challenge. When the flights do go off as scheduled to SFO, one lands at a tototally different terminal and must take a van over to the big United planes. What a pain! How long is this going to continue. Thanks for a great article.

  18. JayB says:

    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. Not likely, obviously. Or, at the very least, someone could decide to restrict in-close airports to local service, freeing up a more distant airport for the long-haul and connecting service. No chance, either. And, we aren’t going to change the weather patterns.

    So, doesn’t that leave it to the airlines as being the cause of the problems? Sure, “just flying the way our customers want.”

  19. cedarglen says:

    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 do not know. He may have that gift of near perfection, or he may subject his posts to review and editing by a second pair of eyes. The how does not matter – it’s the end product that makes or breaks an otherwise informative post. I’ve often thanked other authors for sharing excellent information and privately suggested that they have their posts blindly edited by another pair of eyes. Funny/strange, but the worst of them seem to be the most resistant.
    Thanks, Bret! How ever you do it, the end product is most often a pleasure to read. Best wishes, -C.

  20. George says:

    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 of 10 Million dumptruck loads of fill coming from the hills east of Sacremento, down I-80, across the Bay Bridge, then down 101 to the airport-24/7. The cost was tremendous-the traffic nightmares would have been ungawdly, and that’s what the enviromental lobby really howled about.

  21. Andy says:

    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.

  22. CRStardust says:

    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…….

  23. Bobber says:

    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.

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

    • David M says:

      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’ list of airports that can have their own fog issues. One time I was on a late night SFO-MRY flight (on a CRJ) and the pilots were hoping to get out a little early and try to beat the fog. We ended up leaving just on time, but still made it in to MRY. If MRY had gone below minimums, we’d have just turned around and gone back to SFO.

      I’ve had my share of SFO delays. One of the more memorable ones was a 2 hour delay flying SFO-MRY. Which is about how long it takes to drive. It’s a 20 minute flight. When I lived in MRY, my rule of thumb was that I’d have to be saving at least $100 to make it worth flying out of SJC or SFO over MRY, as it cost about $70 round trip to take a shuttle van.

    • CF says:

      Nick – As David says, yes. If they built another 28 or moved the existing one, then that would help tremendously. But on the worst days, things would get really ugly when they need to land on the other runways. Still, that would be a huge help if they just did one more 28.

  25. CloseToSJC says:

    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 full.

  26. Jeremy says:

    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 you fly into OAK instead if there is room. Just tell the GA that you are booked into SFO, and ask if you can get on the OAK plane instead.

    My favorite story like this went something like this. We were on a flight home from ELP, and it was routed ELP-LAX-SFO. We had to change planes in LAX.
    When we landed at LAX, we got off, went to the GA and asked about our SFO flight. The GA says, “SFO is delayed for 2.5 hours, but if you want to go to OAK, there is a plane leaving in 20 minutes. We said, sure, let us go. She directed us to the plane that we had just got off. The FA on the plane just laughed as she saw us coming back onto the plane.

    And for the people that do not live here, that suggest SJC as an alternate? It is, Kinda, but not really. OAK is way closer, and SJC can be an hour and a half drive during rush hour and is a 2 hour or so train ride into SF.

    Google Maps (which is usually pretty accurate) from the 3 airports to my downtown SF office.

    SFO -201 3rd St = 53 MIN
    OAk – 201 3rd St = 51 MIN
    SJC – 201 3rd St = 1 hour, 55 Min

    So you can see, SJC is not really a good alternative, particularly for a 1 hour flight to Vegas…..

    • Fred says:

      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).

  27. zweiBierebitte says:

    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 HSR construction is moving, we’ll probably be teleporting before the full line is finished :)

    • CF says:

      zweiBierebitte – If anything, high speed rail would make things worse at SFO. Yes, you could eliminate a handful of flights from Fresno and if they choose the Altamont alignment, you could eliminate Modesto too. Maybe you can stretch into Bakersfield and you probably see some reduction in frequency from Burbank and Ontario. But that’s it. It’s not much.

      On the other hand, you make SFO more attractive to people who are closer to San Jose or Oakland today by improving connectivity. So while you eliminate some short haul flights, you just create more demand for longer haul flights that would connect into short haul.

      • Sean S. says:

        It’s slightly disturbing how many people just pop up with “Well they should expand and just mitigate elsewhere.” as if its all that easy to do that, and that there aren’t serious consequences to such a drmatic change to the coastline. I also don’t buy the “the people complaining about delays are the same people complaining about the solutions.” Actually, this is highly unlikely, unless you think there’s a fair amount of overlap between the average corporate flier and crunchy environmentalists.

        I love air travel. I also love a variety of outdoor activities that rely upon a mitigated impact from human development. Air travel, along with other modalities of transportation, have significant impacts on the environment and its important that we attempt to control those as much as possible. That means seriously examining the issues of fuel consumption, the land impact of airports, amongst other things.

  28. mharris127 says:

    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 preferring to drive as flying is more expensive and asinine, the distance between GR and Detroit is about 300 miles.

    • Quest says:

      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.

  29. RR says:

    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 connecting in SFO anyway…connect those passengers through DEN or LAX. The money could then be used to enhance the technology available at the airport.

    I never understood why any passenger booked a domestic flight through/to SFO. Problems at SJC/OAK are comparatively rare, problems at SFO are almost guranteed. I would rather be assured of only an extra hour on the BART then 2-4 hours in a terminal followed by 1 hour of holding over Point Reyes. And those are the lucky people that didn’t have their flight cancelled.

    • DAB says:

      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, oddly, in probably two dozen trips in the last three years or so. I only use SFO for D and O, though, and not connecting really. For my corner of the world, LAX has more connections on UA than SFO (and IAH a lot more).

  30. RR says:

    Oops…I meant ACV-BOS…not ACY.

  31. Blanco says:

    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.

  32. Brent says:

    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 due to ramp space, and MRY had 2 757s, 2 A320s, 6 CRJs, 2 EMB120s) as well as the usual canceled flights as Travis mentioned.

    With my experience with SFO, just adding another “28” runway alone would help things out greatly. For example, landing on the 1s is VERY RARE (almost a goal of some pilots to land on every runway at SFO) and maybe happens only 1 time a year. TO/Landing on the 19s can be more common when some of the storms roll in, and then there is the 10s, but that is limited since there is only non precision apps to them unlike the dual ILS on the the 28s and 1s. Besides the usual rwy config, takeoffs at sfo rank from 1L/R most common, followed by 28L/R (when its windy), then the 10s, and finally the 19s(pretty rare). Landings its the usual 28L/R (never really use 28L on low IFR days using approaches – Below PRM mins), 19L/R,10L/R, and the elusive landings on 1R.

    The biggest priority would be to add a 28R (or 29) ILS even if it was just for landing, but alas like cranky said, its mostly a pipe dream that would have to clear major hurdles with local governments. Until SFO loses more business to LAX and other surrounding airports with cargo and foreign airlines, SFO likely will NEVER change the runway layout.

  33. Brent says:

    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 be at every SkyWest gate explaining (or at least trying to) the SFO FLOW and why (even if its clear) its caused and why a certain flight is delayed because of it. Aircraft could be ontime and sitting at the gate, but a crew could be so behind from flow from the morning or whatever that causes a flight to be delayed. Again Travis can explain more of the hiccups that just crew position and flow can cause, especially with crew swaps.

    And rest assured we as pilots HATE FLOW just as much as the pax do. I dont know how many commutes home I have lost out on because of it, thou, I have benefited to it as well when a commute home that should have been gone is late.

  34. semperfi74 says:

    “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.

  35. Ivan Bishop says:

    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.

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