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California and the West

'Black Star' for S.F. Airport Offers Silver Lining

Safety: Rating by pilots group may help the facility win backing for a plan to fill 350 acres of San Francisco Bay for additional runways.


SAN FRANCISCO — A report that pilots worldwide believe the runways of this city's busy airport are too close together poses a dilemma for airport officials: Is this good news or bad news?

On the face of it, getting a "black star" rating from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Assns. for "critical deficiencies" in safety procedures is always bad news for an airport.

"It came as a complete surprise," said Ron Wilson, spokesman for San Francisco International Airport. "We feel that it is an unfair characterization. This airport has an outstanding record of safety."

But the "black star" rating made headlines here last week just as airport officials unveiled a controversial proposal to fill 350 acres of San Francisco Bay to build additional runways.

More than 40 million passengers use San Francisco airport each year, and airport officials say the pilots' rating underscores their concerns that increased traffic and bigger airplanes are making the 60-year-old runways obsolete.

Environmentalists who don't like the idea of a bay landfill said the safety report makes it more difficult to oppose the plan.

"This would be the largest fill in the bay since the 1960s," said Wil Burns, an activist with the Save San Francisco Bay Assn. "It could affect the migration patterns for some fish. It could damage organisms that feed on the bottom of the bay."

The well-being of fish and microorganisms tend to pale, Burns said, when the specter of human safety is raised.

"If they do determine that the runways as they are are indeed unsafe, we'll be the first to say they have to figure out what to do," he said.

San Francisco is the only U.S. airport on the international association's black star list. Three years ago, the Air Line Pilots Assn., the union representing commercial pilots in the United States, recommended adding San Francisco to the list, which includes airports in Hong Kong, Lagos, Nigeria and Kabul, Afghanistan.

San Francisco has been there ever since, primarily because its two landing runways are parallel and separated by just 750 feet from center line to center line. That's far closer than at most international airports, although U.S. Federal Aviation Administration officials say the airport is safe.

Few people knew about the international pilot group's designation because the group doesn't publicize it. Instead, the association sends lists of airports with safety problems to its member organizations.

"Let's say you are a pilot and you are going to fly somewhere in Africa that you're not familiar with," said John Mazor, a spokesman for the pilots union in Washington. "You could call us and we'll look it up."

San Francisco's rating became public May 10 when the London Sunday Times wrote about the listing.

Mazor said his organization has "been having problems for years" with San Francisco's airport, which is wedged between U.S. 101 on the west and the bay on the east.

He said many pilots complain that the FAA has not established clear-cut procedures for landing on the parallel runways.

"The FAA has not spelled out in adequate detail the procedures that tell pilots and controllers what they are expected to do in case something goes wrong" when two airplanes are landing on parallel runways simultaneously, Mazor said.

Still, he said, "San Francisco is a safe airport. The problems we are talking about do not make it unsafe." Rather, he said, the black star designation serves to warn pilots to be particularly cautious when landing in San Francisco.

The FAA requires new airports to build parallel runways at least 4,300 feet apart. But it allows older airstrips to operate more closely spaced runways with certain safety precautions.

"The bottom line for us is if it was unsafe, we wouldn't be allowing airplanes to be going in and out of there," said FAA spokesman Mitch Barker. "We have procedures to take care of runways closer together than is optimum."

Barker said that in his 13 years at the FAA, there has not been an accident at the airport attributed to the runways being too close.


Flight delays are another story and are a chronic problem, Wilson acknowledged.

"During good weather, we can land two airplanes at a time, staggered," Wilson said. But when fog rolls in, which is often here, pilots are told to make instrument landings, and planes are allowed to land on just one runway, he said.

"They can sometimes stretch out a quarter of the way across the United States waiting to land here," Wilson said. The rate of planes flowing into the airport plummets from 60 an hour to 30. "By the afternoon, we can have two- to three-hour delays," he said.

This year, with El Nino dumping record amounts of rain on the Bay Area, delays and backups have been particularly troublesome.

Once planes capable of carrying 650 passengers are introduced in the next few years, it will be impossible to land two such planes simultaneously in San Francisco, even in good weather. Their wing spans will be so vast, they will not fit.

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