Asiana 214 Crashes at SFO, and the Airport Remains a Mess

By now we’ve all heard that Asiana flight 214 from Seoul/Incheon crashed at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on Saturday. Anyone who bothered to flip on any of the cable news networks has by now had their fill of awful misinformation and irresponsible speculation. For that reason, I’ve decided to stick with my theory that the Loch Ness Monster, on summer vacation, stuck his head up out of the bay and accidentally knocked the airplane around. If that’s not what happened, then I’ll gladly wait for the investigators to prove me wrong.

Asiana 214 at SFO

Of course, there are some things we know. The airplane was landing at SFO on runway 28L with good visibility. That runway backs up into the bay, and the debris trail starts right at the seawall. So it definitely landed too early, and the rocky wall wasn’t exactly helpful for a smooth recovery. Eventually, the airplane ended up a few hundred yards down the runway just to the south, as you can see in the crude map above.

Happily, everyone was able to get out of the airplane, though two people were found dead on the ground. As terrible at that is, this could have been a LOT worse. As of now, that’s really all we know about the accident, though more info is creeping out hour by hour. I think it’s safe to say that others may be happy to speculate on why this happened, but I’ll leave it at that. We simply don’t know.

But there is one thing we do know. SFO was a friggin’ mess this holiday weekend. When the accident happened on Saturday, the airport was closed for several hours. Airplanes diverted all over the place. Lufthansa sent its A380 to Oakland. Emirates had its 777 land in Seattle. And Air New Zealand brought its 747 to LAX. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of other flights were canceled all over the place.

When they did finally open the airport, they had only the two runways perpendicular to the crash site open for departures and arrivals. Usually those runways are used for most departures while arrivals come in on the other runways. The result was that capacity was squeezed incredibly tight. The flights that did land at the airport were lucky to get in.

For many travelers, the best bet was to go to an alternate airport. But there weren’t exactly a lot of seats to be found anywhere. Naturally, airlines started to use bigger airplanes and add extra flights when possible. United with its SFO hub saw the biggest impact. Yesterday from LAX, United had 2 747s, a 777, and a 767-400 scheduled to help get people up to SFO. But delays were still massive. Earlier in the day, FAA showed average delays of around 9 hours. That was decreased to a mere 5 hours by noon. American saw that and put together a different plan – it sent a 767 from LA to San Jose to get people into the vicinity without the delay. But American had far fewer stranded travelers than did United. It appears United did the best it could during an incredibly trying situation.

As you could see by my map, the Asiana flight tried to land on runway 28L, and it veered to the left after landing. That meant that runway 28R to the north saw little impact but it still was kept closed for about 24 hours because of its proximity to the accident location. By midday yesterday, however, runway 28R was opened up and that helped increase the arrival rate to what SFO generally can handle on a normal foggy day. Anyone flown into SFO when the fog rolls in? Yeah, exactly. The airport is still a mess but the average FAA delay dropped immediately to about 1.5 hours. That’s at least manageable. And hey, if the fog rolls in, it shouldn’t have a further impact on the arrival rate.

At this point, the airport should be able to limp along with its usual foggy weather-style operations until the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) can conclude its investigation and get runway 28L cleared out. The NTSB says it’s working as fast as it can. If you’re traveling to or from SFO in the near future, just keep that in mind. If you have a long layover, you should be very happy. If not, you might be sweating a little.

As of yesterday, United had put out a waiver for travel through today. Changes could be made without penalty. If the runway doesn’t open soon, that waiver may be extended. You can see the most current waiver policy here. If the waiver is in place and you’re connecting at SFO, I would highly recommend either taking a later connecting flight or looking for an alternate connecting airport if you can.

Now we just wait until we know what exactly happened on this airplane. Why did it land too early? Was it pilot error, cultural issues, training deficiencies, ATC mistake, procedural problems, mechanical failure, automation problems, random wind gusts, Nessie? It’s usually a combination of multiple factors, but we’ll find out when the investigation is complete.

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