Runway closure at SFO to impact summer travel

SFO's North-South Runways 1R & 1L will close. Arrivals and departures will use 28R & 28L.

SFO’s North-South Runways 1R & 1L will close for 4 months. Arrivals and departures will use 28R & 28L.

On Saturday, May 17, San Francisco International Airport closed half of its runways for four months, which could result in significant flight delays, especially for those departing during peak hours.

Here’s what you need to know:

>SFO has four runways, two of which will be closed for about four months from Saturday, May 17 until mid-September.

>Runways are closed so the airport can construct new, federally mandated “Runway Safety Areas” (RSAs) at the end of runways 1L and 1R.

>While scheduling this work during peak summer travel season sounds insane, airport officials say that they can get the work done fastest during summer months, the Bay Area’s driest season of the year.

The engineered material arresting system – or EMAS – uses crushable concrete placed at the end of a runway to stop an aircraft that overruns the runway. The tires of the aircraft sink into the lightweight concrete and the aircraft is decelerated as it rolls through the material (Engineered Arresting Systems Corporation)

2010 photo from Charleston, WV runway overrun. The engineered material arresting system – or EMAS – uses crushable concrete placed at the end of a runway to stop an aircraft that overruns the runway. The tires of the aircraft sink into the lightweight concrete and the aircraft is decelerated as it rolls through the material (Engineered Arresting Systems Corporation)

>Inside each RSA will be large wide swaths of crushable concrete-like material known as EMAS (Engineered Materials Arrestor System), that are designed to allow aircraft that overshoot, undershoot or veer off the runway to come to safely come to a stop (and not barrel on to Highway 101 or into the Bay!). Think of them as runaway truck ramps like you see on freeways… but for planes.

>Every time it rains at SFO, the airport shifts to a two-runway pattern, so the closure is not unprecedented. As a matter of fact, airport officials say that SFO operated with only two runways 101 times in 2013. (That’s 101 times… not 101 full days, but still…)

(Related: 3 hot mess airports to avoid this summer)

>SFO says that has worked closely with the FAA and airlines to minimize delays associated with the closure. For example, Delta’s hourly shuttle service to LAX will not operate at 11 am or 1 pm this summer according to its schedule. Those flights resume in October. A Virgin America spokesperson said,  “We have proactively adjusted our schedules to allow for longer taxi times at SFO this summer and to minimize the impact for our guests.”

>SFO says that new flight procedures implemented last year to allow more planes to land during foggy conditions should help.

>Arriving flights will be given priority, which means that departures are most likely to be delayed. Those delays are most likely to occur during peak hours– between 10 am and 2 pm.

(Courtesy SFO)

(Courtesy SFO)

>All planes now take off to the west. Flights headed to Southern California and Asia depart SFO, fly up and over the San Bruno gap, then head out over the Pacific. Flights headed to the east and to Europe take off to the west, but make a sharp right turn shortly after take off, then head east over the Bay Bridge and Oakland. (It’s creating some awesome plane spotting from cars on Hwy 101!)

>The airport is implementing a metering system that will assign departure times during peak hours– this system will ensure that if your departure is delayed, you will wait at the gate area and not on the tarmac.

>Runways 28L and 28R had some minor adjustments made last year to meet the spatial requirements set by the federal government. This construction only required runway shutdown for a few days.

>When I asked airport spokesperson Doug Yakel if SFO’s delay problems might ever be permanently fixed by expansion into the Bay, he said no… “beyond the environmental concerns, building new runways out on the bay would simply be cost prohibitive.” He added that many of SFO’s delay issues would likely be solved by new technology instead of new runways.

UPDATE: Tuesday May 20: Flight delays reported by FAA at 8 am PDT (prior to mid-day peak): 

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 8.13.14 AM

click for latest data

How will this news impact your summer travel plans? Are you more likely to fly to/from Oakland or San Jose? Please leave your comments below!

--Chris McGinnis

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  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks Amiram: Keep in mind this is during peak summer travel season when flights will be at annual highs anyway. But they will come back down in the slower fall months. — chris

  • Amiram

    In a notice I’ve received from United today they wrote “…During this period, you may find that there are fewer flights in our schedule…”
    My main concern is available seats and cost. Wouldn’t prices go up with the same or growing demand and less seats?

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  • John

    It may be correct to say that flights to Europe heading out over the San Bruno Gap will mostly bank right and east near the Golden Gate. Often you see British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, United, and others heading to their European Destinations in the afternoon to early eve, and now and then sharply turn right over SSF along with the other east coasters. Regarding delays for travelers, best thing to do is plan ahead, maybe fly in to SFO the day before your connection. Find a decent hotel near BART in Millbrae, or if they have their own shuttles, then take advantage. Air travel of any kind should not be rushed, or at least expect delays anyway. Smart planning always works and doesn’t cost that much more. One night in a hotel will actually benefit the traveler before heading out to other places.

  • Jim

    Daryl, you should consider flying out of Medford, Oregon. It is less than a 4 hour drive from Eureka/Arcata and a nice little airport. Parking rates are reasonable and there are flights to Seattle, PDX, Denver, Salt Lake City, LAX and of course SFO. I found airfares out of MFR to be quite a bit lower than ACV.

  • Daryl

    As a resident of Humboldt County, I have limited options. First, only United Express serves the local airport. I cannot fly into Oakland or San Jose at all. 1) I can fly to Sacramento on one of two flights a day and then change flights to elsewhere. 2) I can drive to the Bay Area, (5-7 hours) park in Oakland or San Jose, and fly from there; maybe that would be better.

  • Mara

    Three words: Travel Disaster Nightmare. I generally avoid summer travel, but if I have to go somewhere, definitely OAK or SJC. Thanks for the heads-up!

  • Kirk

    I wonder if Delta gets priority takeoff slots for its remaining flights in exchange for cancelling 2 peak departures.

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