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

Asiana, SFO - San Francisco

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

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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43 comments on “Asiana 214 Crashes at SFO, and the Airport Remains a Mess

  1. I was in Montreal for the weekend, and the hotel only had CNN – watching their coverage was appalling, but it was the only coverage I could get.

    Here’s hoping SFO gets back to normal quickly and everyone can be on their way.

  2. Don’t you know anything about Aviation?. It obviously wasn’t batted down from below, it was forced down from above by the downdraft from Mothra overhead.

  3. I saw an early interview with a former head of the NTSB (sorry forgot his name). I was very impressed that he didnt try to big note himself and didnt make any guesses to what may have happened.

  4. The crash video that has come out is pretty amazing. A bird that big nearly cartwheeling is a sight. It’s definitely a testament to modern aircraft design (and a little luck) that only 2 people died….

    1. Moreoever, early reports indicate that one of the fatalities may have been caused by the victim being run over by a firetruck racing toward the plane (i.e., the fatality may not have been caused not by the crash itself).

  5. Even under optimal circumstances one plays Russian roulette at SFO with ontime performance.
    Nice city, but unreliable airports which puts it near the top of my global “avoid” list for connections.

  6. I have heard that the pilot only had about 40 hours of flight time on a 777 and had never landed at SFO. I guess there is a chance that a mechanical issue was to blame, but all indications point to pilot error.

    Is it normal to be the chief pilot on a large, long-haul flight with minimal experience with the airplane, and never having landed at a challenging airport?

    1. That is some inaccurate and misleading information that you are working with. He reportedly had 40-ish hours experience ON TYPE, but nearly 10,000 overall, mostly on the 747. It was his first 777 landing at SFO but not his first landing ever there. Also unless the information has changed, he was the first officer, not the captain. Also, SFO in the weather conditions that were present at the time of the crash is not what I would call a challenging airport to land at.

      It is also worth noting that Jeffery Skiles, the F/O and pilot flying on US1549 (The “Miracle on the Hudson”) also was very low time on type at the time of that incident. He was flying the last leg of his first trip on the A320. Time on type alone should not be a major factor in this.

    2. MarylandDavid – What Ben G said. News reports are blasting about how he very such little time on the 777 and it was his first approach to SFO. Pilots have to start somewhere on a new aircraft type and I’d say that a straight in approach to a runway with no obstructions around on a clear weather day shouldn’t be challenging for someone with so much general experience even if not on the 777. Could the few number of hours on that type have played an impact? We’ll find out, but it’s hardly a smoking gun as it’s been portrayed.

  7. Poor people the next few weeks.

    SFO has for ages been near the bottom of DOT ontime rankings. This will create only a bigger mess.

    But I learned the hard way many years ago after one too many connection mishaps. Simply avoid SFO. I much prefer LAX on the west coast. Might not be the prettiest airport, but it works much more efficiently.

  8. Kudos to Cranky for not joining in with the absurd speculation and “gotcha” questions of the media. The NTSB will do its thing and its Chairman Deborah Hersman is performing an admirable job of deflecting the attempts to get her to “make news” before all the facts are in.

  9. Can we all here say whenever there is an aircraft accident, the amount of misinformation put out over the airwaves will be enormous. And, worse, when the accident occurs on a weekend or at sometime other than during primetime and the “B” teams are manning the controls, the misinformation will be even worse.

    And then, when the visuals are just terffic, someone decides to cover half the screen with “crawls” either hyping the words “BREAKING NEWS” or something else that most of us here know is patently incorrect!

    Then we scoff at some eyewitness saying they saw the plane “cartwheel” and we scream: “hey buddy, the wings are still attached.” Then we we see the crash video, from afar, of course, but have to admit, saying they saw a “cartwheel” is not that wrong. Wrong, yes, but…!

    And then, didn’t you love the press conference with all the folks including the NTSB head doing a very decent, professional job, but you’re screaming again, “But, did you see the video, yet?” which we watching CNN are seeing.

    Nice of CNN, or the “Oh my God!” videographer excercising exclusive control over the video which should have been made publicly available immediately [easy for me to say, as I have nothing to gain from the exclusivity]. Couldn’t CNN at least made sure the NTSB had the video before or during the news conference? [Again, like I know all the facts.]

  10. Driving around Saturday morning I was seeing airplanes (some large) lining up over my city to land at OAK and thought why were they doing that. All these airlines couldn’t have had summer charters arriving at OAK all at the same time, I had not heard about the crash at that time.

    You though the cable stations were bad, every local station here was live all trying to put out info that wasn’t available, but as live TV tends to do, they just repeat repeat repeat until they can get an ‘expert’ on live TV to tell everyone what happen and why. These ‘expert’s know crap and it’s shameful TV stations all do this to try and keep viewers to their station.

    The witness who saw the ‘cartwheeling’ airplane was also crazy since live TV shots showed the aircraft just sitting on the ground with the top burned and misisng the tail and engines, that is not a cartwheel.

    I thought it was interesting that the head of Asiana said he didn’t think it was the aircraft or engines that caused the crash, that is just admitting it was pilot error in the publics eye.

    It could have been more tragic if the plane would have come in much lower and slammed into the sea wall and stayed in the water.

    This will be local news for awhile around here.

  11. Some amazing things we’re probably going to learn as a result of this crash landing and how it will affect you:

    1. It is quite common for pilots to make “first” landings into each airport on each type of aircraft they command. [“Have you ever landed at this airport with this type of aircraft before?” If the anwser is “no,” would it be better you knew that fact, before takeoff, enroute, or not at all?]

    2. Not every pilot has truly read and understood every NOTAM that applies, or could apply to their particular flight before they left the origin of the flight. I’ve often verbally said to aircraft cabin crew that I am able and willing to assist in case of an emergency, and that I understand the emergency info that is or isn’t in the seatback pocket that is or isn’t in front of me, but…!

    3. You as a passenger, must accept and understand that the airport you are about to fly into (SFO, and many other major airports) may not have all of their instruments, lights, and other such things in operation, for months on end,

    4. You accept and understand that the distance between SFO runways 28L and 28R might not be optimum, that is, they are too darn close and that closeness would not be approved were the airport built today,

    5. You accept and understand ATC may ask your pilot to switch landing from 28L to 28R, or vice versa, at a time that is not always optimum for a nice landing,

    6. Your pilot may speak a language, as his or her primary language, that is something other than English, and often very hard for you and ATC to understand, and

    7. You accept and understand on this or any other flight, particularly into SFO, God may not necesarily be your copilot!

    1. Except that the probably won’t affect you. From the CBC’s coverage today:

      “Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies commercial flight safety, told the New York Times that a person could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before being in a fatal crash.”

      These amazing things of yours are just scaremongering!

      1. For me, on a trip involving air travel, the order of difficulty is:

        1. the start, going down the stairs in my house I’ve been in for more than 40 years and with luggage in hand not suffering a life-changing fall, (didn’t make the nightly news but not insignificant, to say the least,

        2. getting to my car,

        3. driving to the airport,

        4. taking the parking lot shuttle to the terminal,

        5. the flight (“piece of cake,” so far, of course!), and then

        6. all the risks of “at destination” and the return, from the airport back to home.

        Frankly, I rather be flying!

  12. Geez, I’m amazed that no one is paying attention to Google.. Its the 66th anniversary of the Roswell Crash, the aliens of course tried again and got their target this time…

    Time for an NTSB coverup: The Truth is Out There

    1. You’ll notice in photos that there is a displaced threshold at the 28L approach (the arrows before the start of the runway). That improvement along with declared distances now gives the runway a proper safety area and allows airplanes to overfly the seawall slightly higher than before. Unfortunately, the seawall wasn’t built with the assumption that a plane would come in way low and strike it.

  13. I have landed at SFO more than 100 times. RW 28 L&R are both the long runways
    for heavies 380/747/777 fully loaded. A plane can land 200 ft from the sea wall
    and still have a very long runway in front. I heard on some news program that the
    glide path program was not running that day?? It would appear that this pilot
    just miscalculated his approach.

  14. CF – you are clearly talking absolutely rubbish and you should know better. There is almost no way that the Loch Ness monster could possibly have made the journey to San Francisco.

    Loch Ness is freshwater, not saltwater – thus the monster would have to be adapted to both types of water.

    Loch Ness is pretty damn cold. To travel to California, the monster would have to travel via much warmer waters. It’s almost certain that the Loch Ness monster would not be able to withstand the range of temperature, from a cold Loch, to the warm Caribbean / equatorial Atllantic

    If the monster were to travel via the Panama canal, it would almost find itself trapped or out of space when going through one of the locks – they’re just not really big enough for a monster to remain hidden. Alternatively, if the monster went the long way round (i.e. via Cape Horn), it would again need a very wide tolerance of temperatures

    To travel by sea from Scotland to San Francisco would need extraordinarily good navigation capacity – usually found only in mammals. The Loch Ness monster is of course a reptile and almost certainly cannot sustain this level of geolocation.

    The food available in Loch Ness and the waters around Scotland would likely be very different to that found on the journey to San Francisco. Seems unlikely that it could sustain the range of diet on the journey without getting ill

    1. David, you missed that the Loch Ness could travel via the northern route over the north pole under the ice plates.

      Plus there are many species that can live in fresh water and sea water.

      That being said, I’m sticking to my guns and stating that a UFO did it.

      1. As a reptile, the monster is cold blooded and relies on the sun to warm itself up each day.

        Not only would it almost certainly be unable to survive the bitterly cold northern Arctic waters for days on end, but by travelling under the ice it would lose access to the warming rays of the sun, rendering its muscles too cold to let it do any kind of swimming.

        Separate point I forgot – reptiles tend not to have gills and need to surface regularly to breathe. If Nessie travelled via the Panama canal it would be spotted. If it travelled via the north Arctic under thick ice, it would likely lose access to open air / oxygen for long periods of time

        UFO – now that’s a possibility

        1. I’ve met Nessie, she most definitely stated she can swim underwater for days at a time.

          She also said her favorite meal is aluminum, it goes well with the mercury in her stomach.

    2. David – Best comment of the day by far. But you forget one thing – there’s nothing preventing Nessie from being transported by air. In fact, I believe Aer Lingus decided to fly her over to promote all the great connections on to Scotland via its new SFO – Dublin service.

      1. Neither Aer Lingus nor any other airline flies scheduled from Inverness to Dublin. Guess the flight from Inverness must have been a one-off charter

  15. It’s amazing anyone got out alive after seeing those awful pictures of the fire damage. What could have caused such extensive fires? Was there fire suppression aboard? Even if the cause of the crash was pilot error, where was the other pilot, or copilot? Asleep? In the head? There should be about a thousand improvements that come out of this incident, all for the good of the flying public (I hope).

    And thank you, Cranky, for waiting for official results instead of guessing, like the armchair experts who seem to know everything about everything.

    1. Bernard – If there’s an accident, fire suppression systems don’t usually do anything, from what I understand. Those are there for fires inflight to try to prevent a major accident. The reality is that anytime there’s fuel and a major accident that can cause a spark, there is danger of a fire. That’s why quick exit from the aircraft is so vitally important.

      1. Indeed, Nick… that’s very disconcerting. There were reports of people going or trying to go back to retrieve their luggage. Are they nuts? Disoriented?

  16. I was driving back to PHX and heard KFI, the host was “outraged” that the copilot (First Officer) had the audacity to land the plane! I am constantly amazed at how little the general public knows about the industry. And this whole 43 hours on the 777 baloney…they don’t seem to understand the thousands of hours on the 747, and numerous landings at SFO. Evidently the ignorant public wants every new FO or Captain to fly empty planes several hundreds of times to get experience, and to land and take off at every airport the airline serves. Don’t EVEN get me started on that idiot Mary Schiavo who sells her “expertise” to everyone who will listen…

  17. I was supposed to fly SFO-MDW today. However WN let me rebook for tomorrow out of SJC via LAX without penalty. I had to call twice. The first CSR told me I couldn’t rebook. However the website said I could. I called back and got an agent that knew what she was doing and gladly rebooked me.

  18. My family was indirectly affected by the events on Saturday. Luckily, it was more logistical and no injuries or casualties were involved.

    My 14-year old nephew was flying on United from BOS-SFO-NRT with the People to People ambassador program ( This group of 45 junior-high students and four chaperones were connecting through SFO Saturday afternoon.

    There were many hours of uncertainty while the airport was shutdown. I felt a little helpless in LA, as I was too far to help. My sister was in Boston, frantically trying to figure out if her son was OK. Brett, you can appreciate the logistics of re-booking 50 people on an international itinerary when the planes are flying so full.

    Eventually, the group flew up to SEA 7:30 PM Saturday, where they overnighted, and flew to NRT from there, about 24-hours later than they were originally scheduled to leave SFO. I believe their trip is a couple of weeks, so hopefully their itinerary in Japan wasn’t too impacted.

    As reliable as air travel has become, it is always good to have a backup plan in place. Especially when inexperienced loved ones are traveling.

  19. I saw two UA heavies (747 and 777) at PDX when I landed there, right on the day of the crash. They apparently came from FRA and LHR. I thought it was pretty cool, since the only widebodies we usually get are the 767 and A330.

  20. Side note: My cousin got diverted to Oakland around this time BUT he had already prepaid for a rental car in San Francisco. He had to take a bus or Bart back to SFO to get the car b/c it would have been forfeited (my guess is that if alot of flights were diverted to Oakland, there also may not have been alot of rental cars left there) and then he got stuck in rush hour traffic…

    I don’t know what rental car company this was – there are only a few big ones left. Is that a standard rental car policy if your flight is diverted for ANY reason???

    I heard flights were even diverted to LA and Reno – not like you can hop on a bus or Bart to get your prepaid rental car!!! He also had to get up at 2 am to go to the airport b/c he lives in a remote part of upstate NY

    1. John – Flights were diverted all over the place, though many of them ended up at their final destination eventually. If you do prepay for a rental car, then yes, I would imagine that would be the policy. I guess this was something like Hotwire or Priceline? Those are highly restricted for sure.

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