San Francisco’s Fog and Runway Problems Give the Airport a Dubious Honor

SFO - San Francisco

Pop quiz. Which major airport had the worst on time performance in August? JFK? Nah. Newark? Nope. Chicago? Bzzt. Atlanta? Nyet. Give up? It’s San Francisco. Really.

You would think that the airports that get pounded by thunderstorms all summer would be the ones that rank at the bottom, so it’s even more surprising that San Francisco sits below everyone else by a fair margin. There wasn’t a single drop of rain the entire month at the airport. San Francisco saw only 70.2 percent of flights arrive within 15 minutes of schedule in August. The next worst was Miami at 75.9 percent and then LaGuardia at 76.4 percent. So what gives?

Those of you who live in the Bay Area or fly there frequently are probably shaking your heads right now because you know the pain all too well. The problem? It’s too foggy at the airport by the Bay and the runways are too close together to operate at full capacity in the fog. In a city that loves the environment more than just about anything, this isn’t likely to get fixed any time soon.

But before we dig into the reasons, I’ll put up a virtual layout of the Bay Area for those who don’t know it. (Before you jump on me with hate-spewing comments, realize that I absolutely love it up there, so this map was drawn with love. Well, except for that part about Berkeley. As a Stanford grad, I have no love for you weenies in the East Bay.)

Bay Area Layout

As you can see, SFO sticks out into the Bay from the peninsula, just south of the city of San Francisco itself. In case you were wondering, much of the peninsula there is made up of mountains and the area between the mountains and the Bay is filled with people. The airport has nowhere to go. Now let’s look at the airport in greater detail.

SFO Usual Departures Arrivals

Here you can see the airport up close. It has two sets of parallel runways that are perpendicular to each other. When the winds allow, the airplanes come in from the east and land over the Bay. Departures go to the north. (Yes, some long haul departures use the same runways as arrivals because the runways are so much longer.) But it’s not shifting winds that cause the airport to back up. The problem actually usually happens when airplanes are using this preferred configuration.

On a beautiful sunny day, the controllers can line up airplanes to land simultaneously. The runways are only 750 feet apart (centerline to centerline) but when the airplanes can see each other, that’s ok. When airplanes can’t see each other and they need to do instrument landings, the required distance between runways goes up a lot. You need 2,500 feet to do staggered approaches and 4,300 feet to do approaches exactly parallel to each other. SFO isn’t even close.

There are two ways to solve this problem. One is the technological way – get more accurate systems that allow for airplanes to be much closer to each other even when they can’t see each other. That has happened to some extent as airlines have worked with the airport and the feds to come up with ways to increase the throughput when visibility drops. The other way is to physically move the runways. The only real option there is to push one runway further out to the north into the Bay. I think we all know that in a place like San Francisco, that’s not going to happen. Environmentalists will win that battle every time.

So instead, air travelers just end up suffering any time the visibility goes down. What’s most frustrating about that is it’s very often a beautiful sunny day until the last few miles of the approach when that fog messes things up. In August, that happens a fair bit, and it’s why SFO had the worst on time performance despite not having a drop of rain.

The strangest thing about all this is when flying to San Francisco, you should throw all other advice out the window. What do people usually tell you? Fly in the morning to avoid delays, right? Not to San Francisco. As you might imagine, fog is worse in the morning and will often clear out by afternoon. So the afternoon arrivals are in better shape than the morning ones. Here’s the chart.

SFO On Time Performance

Definitely not what you’d expect to see at most airports, right? So next time you’re flying into SFO, keep that in mind. Afternoon flights might work out better, or if you really don’t want to take chances, there’s always Oakland . . .

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36 comments on “San Francisco’s Fog and Runway Problems Give the Airport a Dubious Honor

  1. Not surprised at all. Love the airport nonetheless. And the arrow point of your ‘wierdo’s and hippies’ is, I think, cover the roof of my old apartment, Cranky!

  2. I would love to use OAK more often, but if you’re not a WN flyer or you’re traveling to/from the East Coast, you have few choices – JetBlue is down to one single red-eye to IAD and two measly flights to JFK; AA is gone; and UA has a whopping two daily flights to DEN. So, I’ll put up with the pain of SFO to get a nonstop to the East. At least if you’re delayed on a nonstop, you don’t have to worry about misconnecting.

  3. Argh. I love SFO. Although BGM used to have fog trouble all the time on the late night arrivals, I’ve been diverted to Elmira a couple of times. That’s what you get when you put an airport ontop of a mountain.

    Oh, aren’t they getting rid of the colorful salt ponds that you see on arrival to SFO? (well tha is when you can see.)

  4. I think because of OAK and SJC there is not a big push to do land fill to move the SFO runways. The major up and down the west coast flights can go via SFO/OAK/SJC so OAK/SJC take a lot of traffiic. If SFO was the only airport around here, that could make a difference if a runway move.

    Cranky you should have put a red arrow right across from SFO to show OAK, as it’s a whole different weather world as you said for airports right across from each other.

    August is always a fun month in San Francisco (not the whole bay area). All the tourist come to S.F. in August the ‘hottest’ month of the year and come only with tank tops, shorts, and flip flops thinking it’s hot since it’s August. Then they get here and head to the stores in Union Square to buy jackets and long pants. It’s really funny to see tourist shivering on a August day in the city and all the locals wearing jackets all snug and warm.

    1. Never understood why anyone would choose to live in a place where you have to wear jackets and long pants to be “snug and warm” in the middle of August. Yes, San Francisco is a great city, blah blah blah, but I still don’t get it.

      1. Well, by that logic, why does anyone live in Siberia? You answered your own question… SF is an amazing city, so residents tolerate the sometimes unseasonable weather (and laugh at the clueless tourists :-)

      2. It’s not like that all the time. If those same tourists would go to the east bay they would be saying it’s to hot.

        And maybe they did land in OAK as OAK gets a lot of charters since it is cheaper to land there. I’ve seen many different airlines of the world in OAK doing charters over the years.

      3. As a tourist I’d rather have a chilly cool day calling for pants and a nice fleece jacket – rather than be hot, sticky and gross after walking around for hours. On a 50 degree day my small camera bag doesn’t make my back sweaty, and I have a few more pockets for maps and what not.

        Get cold? Duck into a coffee shop for soup.

        I do all my big trips in the shoulder seasons. Took my sister and niece to Amsterdam in March. Yes we had a few windy and rainy days but some great memories, very few other tourists. I’m headed to Madrid in a month. Rather have 50 and chilly than 90 and stifling hot.

        I save the summers for camping in the mountains – (where even in July it gets cold at night.) I should mention I grew up in Michigan.

        1. I know this is an aviation blog and not a weather summary of San Francisco, but I will say it is like going to Palm Springs.

          I was the tourist the first time in Palm Springs and it was between 104-107 degrees (spring time temps) and we were going to take the tram up to San Jacinto Peak. Everyone said take a jacket and I said it’s 104, they said take a jacket and I said it’s 104. So we get to the top and there is snow on the ground. Seems it wasn’t 104 at 8,500 ft above the desert floor…..LOL

      4. Andrew….this last week in SF has been 80-90 deg every day- Beautiful. Cool at night. What you and most tourists don’t get is our best weather is in late April/May and Oct/Nov and sometimes Dec. I have spent many Christmas days at the beach with 70 deg. weather. All my wife’s family in MI are always jealous ! Remember that when you are freezing on the East Coast (or Mid West) this winter.

  5. I could use some help here. Wasn’t San Jose supposed to provide some relief for SFO? IMHO the lack of a high speed rail link to San Francisco is the reason that hasn’t panned out. Could AA be enticed to make a go of it again if one was built?

    1. I don’t think San Jose would ever be a good reliever for SFO. It’s 45 miles down the traffic-choked peninsula. There is already the “Baby Bullet” that goes from San Francisco down toward San Jose as a semi-high speed train, but it still takes an hour, and it doesn’t even drop you off at San Jose Airport itself. It’s just not worth it.

      San Jose put a ton of money into improving the airport, but that was more to serve the South Bay and Silicon Valley areas. Instead, it just has high costs these days.

      1. Brett you or other may not know or remember this, but years ago UA used to have schedules departing SJC with a connection in SFO. One would think it was a small prop plane doing the SJC/SFO segment, but noooooooooo. It was a bus service that you could pick up at a downtown San Jose stop or at the convention center. The bus didn’t even go to the airport. Thankfully they stopped that stupid service. Must have had to many going to SJC expecting to depart from there. And it would be a real pleasure to get dropped off in down town S.J. late at night.

        At least eons ago when TWA did SJC-SFO-IAD they flew a real plane (727 spring/summer & 707 thru plane svc fall/winter). I lived in S.J. at the time and that plane turned right over where I lived to get into position to land. And when it was a 707 it was low and you could see people in the windows. The first time it flew over head after I moved in I hit the floor knowing I was going to die in a plane crash…….LOL

      2. I disagree with Brett. The Caltrain runs to Santa Clara station and there is a free VTA 10 connector bus that runs from the Caltrain to the airport. The connector service runs fairly quickly, at about once every 20 mins during peak times and the trip is fairly quick.

        The new configuration of SJC is essentially one big terminal for all airlines. That means it’s extra easy to clear security because you can go through TSA at Terminal A or B as opposed to the oft-clogged mini-terminal configuration in SFO. My longest wait for TSA at SJC is usually under 5 minsand have never been more than 20mins, at SFO, I’m lucky if I get through in 20-30mins and have dealt with 1h TSA lines.

        I admit that I am biased as I live in Mountain View(one city away from the SJC) but for a person living in SOMA, SJC would take a little longer to get to but is somewhat convenient (provided the price is right). I fly SFO when the schedule or price demands it.

        And unless you are in the international terminal which has slightly better choices, the food at SFO sucks. SJC has a good number of restaurants and has a Peet’s and a Starbucks.

  6. There was a major push to add new runways during the first tech boom. Flights at SFO were at an all time high and delays were really becoming a problem. As Cranky mentions though, there was a lot of resistance to filling more of the Bay (which has been a long-running saga). With the tech industry crash and then 9/11, the volume of flights cratered. The plans were quietly grounded (HA!) in 2003, I think.

    As it happens, one of the arguments against the runways was that by 2010, there would be all this new technology in place that would make the runways unnecessary.

  7. I recall there were also proposals to build a rail tunnel under the Bay between SFO and OAK to make it easier for connecting flyers to quickly hop between airports. SFO arrivals could connect more directly to BART rail in the East Bay (assuming they pushed through to the off-airport BART station and eliminated that silly bus link), and OAK arrivals could come in from wherever in the US and connect to Asia flights at SFO. Meanwhile the alternative is a much longer BART journey that goes up and around.

    1. They had talked about extending BART where it comes from the middle of the 238 freeway and going across the bay on a train only bridge which would then turn to head towards S.F., but that is never going to happen. Neither is anything else. Look how many billions it’s costing to build a new bridge between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island to replace the old one.

    2. Unfortunately the “the off-airport BART station” is not BART, but a people-mover, and a staggeringly expensive one that isn’t even faster than a bus.

    1. Thanks johnny0 that was interesting. I’m sure whom ever make that map did the best they could having to squeeze three major airports in that box, some landmarks are not where they should be. But moving things around in my head, it would seem about right for the most part judging where planes fly over where I live.

      But there are exception as I’ve been outside in my yard and watched 747’s fly passed and head across the bay to line up for SFO in a stop where they shouldn’t be by that map. I always know when a plane is where it shouldn’t normally be. If it goes right over my place, it’s not where it should be…

    2. That map is incomplete. It doesn’t show the approach to SJC that comes in over Saratoga/Los Gatos/Campbell. It doesn’t show bad weather takeoffs from SFO or SJC.

  8. Ah yes………the dreaded SFO morning ATC inbound flow delays. When booking connections to Asia and the S. Pacific (typically starting in LAS, DEN, or PHX) SFO fog is always in the back of my mind, and has even forced me to do the LAX terminal hussle/shuffle to avoid the chance of a missed connection at SFO. With SFO attempting to market itself as a better connect point than LAX, they can’t change the weather (until Google fixes that) or the runway config. Would be interesting to see WN’s profit and operational analysis for SFO (past WN ops vs. new WN ops) to see if the SFO incentives and operational improvements sold to WN have made up for the operational headaches. With the higher average ticket values that SFO tends to draw (vs. OAK and SJC), I suspect that WN makes-up for their operational headaches with the greater commercial benefits. At least WN will have some scheduling experience for their LGA and EWR expansion, and LAX will keep one advantage over SFO for inbound connections.

  9. “OAKlandings” and take-offs are always a good idea. I always shop OAK first. The airport is great and I’m always on-time. At SFO there is always some drama or other unfolding. My last flight there was nearly two hours late and they had people boarding and disembarking from the same jetway. I checked on my laptop, everything at OAK was on-time. There would be more flights at OAK, too, if some British billionaire didn’t muck things up. The smart move would have been to start that airline at OAK.

    1. Had to think for a second who and what you were talking about…..LOL. Saying San Francisco is more hip sounding then saying gang banger Oakland. But Sir Richard also knew they would get into the new(old) terminal and would have room to grow and get international feed. I guess that was more of a draw then ‘hubbing’ in the east bay which has a larger population then the west bay.

    2. That was never going to happen as long as Virgin Atlantic was landing in SFO. And no way Richard would sit still for moving Virgin Atlantic to Oakland while BA ran two flights a day to SFO.

  10. Given the predominance of the marine layer, the airport should not be scheduled for more than the arrival rate under IFR. The delay is caused by airline overscheduling: the marine layer is a known certainty, but is ignored by the airlines.

    Furthermore, SFO is clogged by lots of 40-seater commuter airplanes that cause delays or cancellations of 150-seater jets. Perversely these commuter planes get a discount, and pay far less that a large plane does, in one of the most egregious mispricing of a constrained resource (a landing slot) — the most inefficiently it’s being used, the lower the price!!

  11. SFO is the worst. I mean, its a nice airport, but even though I go there 2-3 times a year, they still always (ALWAYS) find some way to delay my flight at least 1/2 hour to an hour (I am actually talking about departures too). I love Oakland, personally, and I fly out of there whenever I can. But they cut all the service there so we can’t go so much out of there anymore. People heading into San Francisco should definitely look at OAK.

  12. I live in Millbrae above SFO. It’s true about the fog, but SFO is the best airport for its amenities. The food concessions are outstaning (Dim Sum, Fresh Sushi), its arts exhibits is of museum quality (it had the history of martini shakers and tiki bars), it has a BART station to CAL, it’s close to a Caltrain station to other university not worth mentioning. A centralized car rental facility connected by a train, It has a great aviation library and museum for airplane geeks such as myself.

    Unlike JFK or LAX, SFO is one of the best airports for connections. Every terminal connected internally within a reasonable walking distance. SFO has good direct destinations with Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Middle East and South America. The International Termnal is spacious, and customs area was a breeze.

  13. Not an inspiring story since I have an early morning flight to SFO that I just booked… You missed the cluster of oil refineries on the map, for another omission.

    That describes my trip, actually. Flight to SFO, drive to an oil refinery, flight to LAX, drive to another oil refinery, flight home…

  14. As a Bay Area native who has since fled the bleeding state, I still deal with this issue and appreciate the…..diplomacy with which Cranky wrote the article. I, however, will NOT be as diplomatic. I’m a commuting flight attendant who sadly has SFO as his base. \
    Here’s how it really is:
    -EnviroWhackos (of which there are far too many in the bay) cannot be reasoned with. Ten years or more of proposals, meetings, environmental impact studies, and the typical bay area political ridiculousness are to blame for the current situation. Here’s an article from 2003 –
    As you can see, this has been an endless “project” into which hundreds of millions of dollars have been piddled away – ala Bay Bridge. Wasted taxpayer money to do environmental studies with which environmentalists will never agree, concede, or give an inch – because they cannot be reasoned with.
    -Aircraft continue to sit at various airports throughout the country, taxiing, idling, and POLLUTING as they await their delayed departures to SFO; still other aircraft circle around waiting to land at SFO when these slowdowns occur. The result: more pollution in the air, holes in the Ozone Layer, more “Spare the Air” Days, millions of dollars lost to the economy due to weather delays, and negative impact all around. Again: the EnviroWhackos cannot be reasoned with. They shift focus, lay blame, and are blinded by their own cause.
    -OAK and SJC continue to have higher on-time records and are well-known in the bay as being easier and more efficient. Most of my friends in SF actually take BART or drive to OAK, knowing that at least they’ll get to their destinations on time from there. Sad. They’re taking their money elsewhere, preventing SFO from bringing in additional money, taxes, and business to an airport which is, quite simply, a beautiful disaster.

    It’ll eventually come down to this: sometime in 2021 or 2027, the airport will finally grab their set and stand up to the EW’s and pay them off. They’ll name their price, using the money to save some species or indigenous plant in a distant place, and aircraft will FINALLY be able to land parallel in the fog. By then, OAK and SJC will handle far more traffic and will still have normal on-time takeoffs and departures and people will have given up on SFO. Then SFO will have to blow MORE taxpayer money to remodel and try to entice everyone to come back to The Delay on the Bay.

    If anyone has any valid arguments as to why we should simply leave the runways the way they are, and wait this situation out while planes circle, taxi and pollute – I’d LOVE to hear from you! Until then, it simply validates my firmly held belief that being environmentally conscious is far better than being an “environmentalist”.

  15. I have flown “through” (connected) SFO many times over the years, mostly due to my location in Southern Oregon leaves little choice if flying United.
    While it may be a ‘nice’ airport in a beautiful city, this airport being United’s hub is the major reason I either find the time to drive or fly another carrier.
    I have YET to not have flight delayed, often missing connections and traveling with an autistic son, this just adds to the frustration.
    I was quite happy with United and how they dealt with problems that are beyond their control in our most recent adventure connecting through SFO (unlike in the past, but I think United is working on their customer service), however that said until United finds a better hub for persons connecting from places such as Medford, Redding, Arcata, etc., they likely will little business from us.

  16. SFO sucks balls. It is a nice day and they still cant land. You neglected to mention option 3 which is to just book less flights to the airport. You lose money but at least it could operate somewhat more efficiently.

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