High-speed rail could free up valuable space at SFO 

click to enlarge A Lufthansa Airbus A380 plane lands at San Francisco International Airport on May 10, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Lufthansa became the first major airline to bring the Airbus A380 to San Francisco International Airport with a daily non-stop to and from Frankfurt, Germany. - JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES
  • Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • A Lufthansa Airbus A380 plane lands at San Francisco International Airport on May 10, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Lufthansa became the first major airline to bring the Airbus A380 to San Francisco International Airport with a daily non-stop to and from Frankfurt, Germany.

While the state’s high-speed rail project is expected to redefine how people travel on trains, local officials are banking on the plan having an equally important impact in the skies.

Small, inefficient flights between The City and the Los Angeles area account for 15 percent of all domestic travel at the San Francisco International Airport. With the option of traveling between the two cities in just two hours and 40 minutes on high-speed rail, travelers may start eschewing the short flights, a development that would open up more gates for lucrative international and trans-continental travel at SFO.

“There is no question that international travel brings a much higher economic benefit to the region,” said Charles Shuler, a spokesman for SFO. “And with high-speed rail, we’ll be able to reduce the number of short-haul trips to the Los Angeles Basin and introduce more international flights.”

Laurie Anderson, spokeswoman for the tourism group San Francisco Travel, said international travelers stay longer and spend more money than domestic visitors. An increase in such travel could introduce San Francisco to a whole new market of future tourists.

“The more visitors we get, the healthier our city is,” said Anderson.

Along with reducing air travel to Los Angeles, high-speed rail also could reduce connecting flights to SFO from Central Valley cities such as Fresno and Modesto.

“A plane with 30 people from Fresno takes the same slot as a 400-person jumbo jet from Beijing,” said Jim Lazarus, public policy director at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “High-speed rail will eliminate that problem, and allow for a higher frequency of large planes to land at the airport.”

A functioning high-speed rail system also could reduce congestion and delays at the airport. Since the hub provides so many trips to the Los Angeles region, the rest of its air travel must be squeezed into a relatively tight time slot, a precarious situation that has contributed to SFO’s woeful on-time performance rate.

“Short-haul flights are inherently inefficient,” said Gillian Gillett, the transportation advisor for Mayor Ed Lee. “With high-speed rail, the airport can cater to larger flights with more people. That right there will reduce congestion and delays.”

While the airport and many San Francisco officials have been longtime backers of high-speed rail, the $68 billion project still faces a tough battle before it’s completed. So far, only $13 billion has been identified for the plan, and $32 billion is projected to come from the federal government, which must withstand the opposition of many House Republicans. It’s also facing a potential recall challenge at the November state ballot.

But, if things go as planned, the service could be completed by 2029, a date that will surely be anticipated eagerly by travelers stuck at SFO.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

Key travel statistics

15 Percent of daily domestic flights from SFO to Los Angeles basin

533 Weekly flights from SFO to LA basin

27.16 Percent of flights that are delayed at SFO

18.55 National average of delayed flights

16 million Tourists that visited SF last year

$8.64 billion Economic impact of tourism last year

Source: SF Travel Association, SFO, FAA

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Will Reisman

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