SFO air traffic may need some repairs

San Francisco International Airport may need to encourage airlines to fly fewer, fuller, larger planes and fly more in off-peak hours in an effort to ward off a massive air system clog expected to hit the Bay Area in the next two decades.

The proposed changes are among those suggested by local aviation experts who met last week to brainstorm ways to avoid a breakdown in air traffic flow at regional airports. A report released in May by the Regional Airport Planning Committee indicates that if SFO does not do anything to handle expected air traffic increases of 1 to 2 percent annually, there would be critical delays by 2025. A similar situation is projected at Oakland International Airport by 2015.

Diverting flights from SFO to Oakland when the area’s notorious weather delays set in, and even using backup ground transportation for shorter flights if the delay exceeds the time it would take to drive, were other solutions discussed by the committee. And while a three-year-old landing system called PRM-SOIA has made it easier to land planes when the fog ceiling is low, the committee recommended extending its use in less harsh weather conditions.

SFO spokesman Mike McCarron said the airport has not yet looked specifically into how to implement the panel’s recommendations, but has discussed ways to minimize future delays.

Using fewer, larger planes should become easier as the Airbus A380 jumbo jet becomes more popular over the next five years, McCarron said. Flying more planes outside of peak hours — 8 to 10 a.m., 5 to 6 p.m. and 9 to 11 p.m., or 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for international flights — may also help.

“We’re cognizant of the fact that there could be delays, and we have measures in place to help minimize their effects,” McCarron said.

The airport will also have to make some structural changes, including remodeling the currently unused Terminal 2, to accommodate growth, especially in the low-cost carrier market, which has expanded greatly this year at SFO with JetBlue Airways, Virgin America and Southwest Airlines now offering service. Expanded service to Asia is also expected to boost operations at West Coast airports.

While an outmoded air traffic control system has contributed to delays, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor has said local governments also need to encourage airports to route smaller, regional flights to other areas.

Mayor Gavin Newsom agreed at a news conference last month that routing flights to airports such as Modesto would alleviate some of the traffic at SFO.

Bay Area airport facts

» Domestic passenger volumes in the U.S. returned to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels by 2005.

» Small, regional air traffic has grown from 10 percent to 22 percent in the last 15 years.

» In the next 10 years, airline load factors, a measurement of how full planes are, will average more than 78 percent.

– Source: Regional Airport Planning Committee

tramroop@examiner.com

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