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Air Canada incident at SFO years in the making

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An incoming Air Canada aircraft at San Francisco International Airport earlier this month narrowly avoided colliding with another plane. (Courtesy photo)
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Were it not for a perceptive United Airlines pilot whose instant reaction with a few seconds remaining averted a catastrophe last week, 1,200 incinerated bodies would line a half mile of a San Francisco International Airport taxiway. It would have been the worst accident in the history of aviation.

A future investigation would, no doubt, have placed most of the blame on “pilot error.”

But that wouldn’t be wholly accurate. The seeds for the potential tragedy actually were planted on a Monday afternoon, June 24, 2002, in room 250 of San Francisco’s City Hall.

On that day, Supervisor Aaron Peskin single-handedly put “on reserve” the final $5 million of a five-year-long, 90 percent complete, $75 million study to make SFO’s runways safer and more efficient.

If he hadn’t done that, a new runway would long since have been in service, so far from Runway 28R that the chances for last week’s incident would have been infinitesimal. His action that day also sealed SFO’s ranking as the second most delay-prone airport in America. With a quarter of its arrivals late, that means 7 million travelers annually have missed meetings, weddings and funerals because of his deed.

Peskin called the study to improve SFO’s safety and performance “a boondoggle” and “fluff.” Then-Mayor Willie L. Brown decried Peskin’s “level of indifference to peoples’ safety.”

Another result of the fund impound was that no airport management since 2002 has felt confident enough to revisit what many regard as the airport’s two most important subjects.

To meet both the safety and delay problems, Peskin should now restore his “reserve,” allowing completion of the runway reconfiguration study, and announce that a safe, delay-ending new runway is now one of his priorities. The distant location of the strip would never again confuse a pilot about 28R runways vs. adjacent taxiways.

For his environment-oriented constituency, he would add that it should be built on stainless-steel-lined pylons, allowing fish free passage. It would be as beautiful as the similar runway at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Color lighting underneath would even make it a light sculpture at night.

Last week’s near-debacle was foreseeable. So is another if the runway study and early construction continue to be thwarted.

Stanford Horn writes about transportation and development issues.

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