SFO congestion a serious concern

A report released in May by the Regional Airport Planning Committee painted a dark, congested horizon in less than 20 years for San Francisco International Airport if that hub’s officials don’t take necessary steps to alleviate an expected air-system nightmare. Fortunately, aviation experts last week unfurled several sensible ways to stave off the projected congestion that should be given serious consideration.

The May report included the sobering finding that, barring improvements, SFO could expect air-traffic increases of 1 percent to 2 percent per year that would culminate in massive aviation delays at the airport by 2025. For the already weather-challenged SFO, that news should be enough to move airport officials to take action — particularly since the flight-paralyzing fog banks SFO is notorious for aren’t about to vanish forever from the landscape.

The fog-driven delays aren’t all SFO has to worry about. Bay Area air travelers were given a reminder of that fact Friday when the computer system controlling radar tracking malfunctioned, grounding 29 flights out of SFO and 90 flights across California.

The silver lining in Friday’s cloud was that the computer malfunction occurred at the end of the peak period of travel before 9 a.m. Had one of the aviation experts’ suggestions already been in place, i.e., flying more planes outside of peak hours — 8 to 10 a.m., 5 to 6 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for international flights — some of the groundings Friday may have been averted.

Other sensible suggestions offered by the local experts include diverting flights from SFO to Oakland when the former is besieged by fog, the use of fewer, larger planes, and an around-the-clock use of the three-year-old landing system called PRM-SOIA, which has made it easier to land planes when the fog ceiling is low.

The Federal Aviation Administration has said local governments need to encourage airports to route smaller, regional flights to other areas in order to help alleviate traffic congestion at major airports, a suggestion that won the endorsement of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last month when he called on the rerouting of those type of flights from SFO to airports such as Modesto.

No doubt, uppermost on Newsom’s mind — it certainly is on ours — is the fact that SFO is a vital element of the Bay Area’s economy. Structural changes at SFO that include remodeling of the currently unused Terminal 2 to accommodate growth, especially with the arrival of JetBlue Airways, Virgin America and Southwest Airlines, are a tangible step in the right direction that helps keep SFO competitive on the domestic front. But with Los Angeles International Airport having just unveiled a new runway, SFO will need such on-the-ground updating and more if it is to continue seriously competing as a leading international gateway on the West Coast.

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