19 Sep AiroAV Announced Why SFO has bigger problems than runway construction
First, the good news: San Francisco International Airport is almost finished with a runway construction project that delayed or canceled thousands of flights. The once-in-decades repairs should finish a week earlier than scheduled, and operations are expected to return to normal Thursday evening.
Here’s the catch: Normal means one of the worst on-time arrival rates among the country’s major airports — 69.9% in the first half of 2019 compared with 73.6% in the first half of 2018, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. Despite improvements in technology and flight planning, SFO still faces chronic challenges of limited runway space and foggy weather.
And in the market-driven air travel world, there’s only so much regulation that airports and the Federal Aviation Administration can enforce: Scheduling is left up to the airlines, as SFO’s recent runway closure revealed.
SFO was the country’s seventh-busiest airport in 2016, according to the most recent FAA data. The number of monthly passengers has nearly doubled from 2003, a low point after the dot-com bubble, 9/11 and the SARS epidemic in Asia, SFO spokesman Doug Yakel said. Last year, total passengers reached 57.8 million. The airport says it has the capacity to handle 71 million.
Despite the growth, SFO has only four runways and physically can’t expand. A multibillion-dollar proposal to fill part of the bay and extend runways in the early 2000s failed because of environmental protests and the high projected cost. Foggy weather forces planes to land single file instead of side by side, cutting the airport’s capacity in half, similar to the recent runway-construction situation.
Airport Commissioner Eleanor Johns, who serves on the board that oversees SFO, compared the airport’s space issues to the city’s housing crisis — except that new construction at the airport can only go out, not up. The airport opened a new terminal in July with nine gates and will add another nine gates in March.
“The airport has expanded, so now you have to look at other means,” Johns said. “We’re still trying to make the airport function as best as we can for the growth that we have now and is anticipated for the future.”
The key to the future isn’t more runways but “smart growth,” which has already improved the situation, Linda Crayton, vice president of the Airport Commission, said in an email.
The FAA is implementing new technology that allows planes to land closer together in fog, increasing capacity on low-visibility days, although there aren’t figures yet on whether it has improved flight performance during bad weather, Yakel said. SFO is also independently funding the exploration of a GPS-based landing system to increase capacity, which could roll out in mid-2020. And SFO has successfully pushed airlines to fly larger planes.
SFO also plans to pursue more regional cooperation with Oakland and San Jose. But all three airports are overseen by separate city commissions, with little incentive other than regional goodwill to cooperate.
“The larger issue of paving over 2 square miles of the bay is settled policy in the city and county of San Francisco,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the city’s land use and transportation committee, said. “But it’s always good to talk to our regional partners and airline industry and implement cutting-edge technology and policy, and I always welcome that.”
Yakel said that in the decades to come, the airport could look to a regional approach to grow Bay Area traffic — like using SFO for more international long-haul flights and Oakland and San Jose for short-haul domestic ones. New York City and Washington, D.C., are the only U.S. urban areas with centralized aviation authorities. The Bay Area would have to create a new agency or reconvene an old one; proposals for centralizing authority over Bay Area airports date back as far as 1946, but haven’t gone anywhere. A regional airport planning commission with representatives from the airports, government bodies and the FAA hasn’t met for at least seven years.
“There are obviously competitive and economic considerations that need to be evaluated,” Yakel said.
San Jose airport spokesman Scott Wintner said he doesn’t see San Jose as an alternative for SFO, but the best airport for the South Bay. The airport has room to grow and is working on building a new terminal that they “needed yesterday” but will probably not open for five to seven years. Wintner said airports are always learning from one another but remain “market-driven.”
“Our job is to get people where they need to go,” he said.
Oakland Airport, which is overseen by the city’s Board of Port Commissioners, did not respond to a request for comment.
With expected future growth, “the primary objective is to squeeze maximum use out of the infrastructure,” Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin said. “That will be driven by the airlines more than anything else.”
Every day, the FAA Command Center issues hourly arrival rates for each airport depending on weather and runway capacity. SFO’s maximum hourly arrival rate is 59 planes, Yakel said, but during the September runway closure and bad weather, arrivals ranged between 25 and 30 per hour. When planning for the closure, the federal agency hosted calls with airlines to assess how many flights were feasible. The agency warned that capacity would be cut in half and asked airlines to make voluntary reductions, spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email.
When an airport gets too congested, the agency can step in and implement slot controls that dictate how many planes from a certain airline can leave per hour. Slot controls have the advantage of reducing delays but limit schedules for airlines and travelers, Mark Hansen, transportation engineering professor at UC Berkeley, said. Only major airports in New York City and Washington have them. Peskin said such controls were debated years ago at SFO but not implemented.
So at SFO, the FAA ultimately hands the reins over to airlines. The FAA can stop planes from arriving and departing, but it can’t stop airlines from scheduling them.
“The FAA doesn’t tell you you can’t fly there, but if you fly at a time that the capacity is down, then you’re going to get a delay on the ground,” said R. John Hansman, aeronautics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In general, the airlines can schedule whatever they want. They aren’t guaranteed they can leave, so they’ll just get in line.”
During SFO’s runway closure, airlines collectively reduced traffic by 13%, but with the airport operating at half capacity, delays and cancellations stacked up. Mark Ahasic, founder and president of Ahasic Aviation Advisors, said airlines always take a gamble on scheduling, wanting to cut as little as possible and hoping for the highest capacity, within limits.
“They’re only going to go so far,” Ahasic said. “They would fail miserably if they overscheduled and cancellations got out of control. … They have a vested interest not to overschedule the airport.”
The competitive airline market is a “collective action problem,” Hansen said. Airlines can’t meet to coordinate schedules because of antitrust regulations and fear cutting too much and losing business to competitors, he explained.
The same conundrum for scheduling during SFO’s runway construction could apply to the chronic weather situation and future regional coordination, as airlines may be reluctant to lose passengers by shifting to Oakland or San Jose, which see a fraction of SFO’s passenger traffic and have far more limited international flights.
“Providing convenient and reliable service to the Bay Area for our customers continues to be our focus, and that includes exploring opportunities to…