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I Am So Done With SFO

Sunday 13 December 2009

I am so done with SFO.

SFO is San Francisco International Airport, the major airport that serves the San Francisco Bay Area (sorry, SJC and OAK, not there yet). It’s a large airport with flights to just about everywhere, but it has a huge problem.

The runways are too damn close together.

When the airport was laid out in its current configuration in the 1950s, a 750 foot separation between runways was fine for the traffic load and aircraft types. Now, however, the airlines and airport schedule the airport for just about round-the-clock reliance on those parallel runways. Those runways which, as soon as a drop of rain falls or it gets a little windy, turn back into a single runway.

So everything into SFO backs up, often for hours, either in the air or on the ground at its origin.

If you’re on an international flight, especially one from the Far East, you are probably okay because a) it’s hard to divert or delay those flights, and b) they are high-profile flights with lots of Super Globe-Trotter Platinum Executive frequent flyers, who will cause trouble if they are delayed. If you are on a domestic flight from the Other Coast, you may be delayed, on the ground or in the air, for hours as the traffic meant for two runways is funneled into one.

But woe betide you if you are on a flight elsewhere on the West Coast, or worse, waiting for a plane from another West Coast flight, especially a commuter flight. Those will stay on the ground (a “ground hold”) until the controllers are satisfied that all the other traffic will be accommodated. If it’s an evening flight out, you may as well stay home, because odds of a long delay (over 2 hours) or cancellation is not uncommon. In the past three weeks, we’ve had two out of two flights delayed, one cancelled, and seen lots of others in Terminal 3 have the same fate.

This would be fine if it were real weather. Herself and I grew up back East, schooled in Pittsburgh, flown through ORD and LGA and STL and DCA a lot, so we know what real weather is. What shuts down SFO isn’t real weather, it’s just rain, a little wind, and bad scheduling for periods when the airlines and airport know that the odds of a runway being closed are high. It’s not uncommon for SFO to be in what the FAA shows as a “red” delay state (over 45 minutes) when all the other airports on the West Coast (and often, in the rest of the country) are green (no delays). It just doesn’t make sense to fly out of SFO to Ashland (really, MFR) any more, at least not from late October through mid-May, the main rainy season in San Francisco. That’s not to say the rest of the year is immune–there are inversions that hold in the fog, which has the same effect–but it’s a bit better.

Ah, well, at least it’s a cheaper cab ride to SJC.

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