Well into this week, air travelers were still feeling reverberations from the crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport. Beyond the tragedy of the crash, the episode was a reminder of just how fragile our air transportation is. Reporter: Craig Miller
Well into this week, air travelers were still feeling reverberations from the July 6 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
Friday’s confirmation of a third fatality – a child – eclipsed most of them. But beyond the abundant tragedy of the crash, the episode was a reminder of just how fragile our air transportation is.
At the time of the crash, I happened to be in the air, flying back from the East Coast. My connecting flight from Las Vegas to Oakland was on time. But seated next to me was Duffy Damgaard, whose day didn’t go as well. The San Francisco food marketer was on his way home from a New York trade show. His flight out of Newark was bound for SFO.
“The captain came over the intercom at about 1 o’clock,” Damgaard recalled, “and said that he had some terrible news, that there was a plane crash in S.F. and that we were being diverted to Las Vegas.”
Damgaard’s flight was hardly the only one. According to FlightAware, a website that tracks commercial airlines, 70 flights bound for SFO were diverted to other airports immediately after the accident. Damgaard happened to be on a Virgin America flight, on which every seat back has a built-in TV. He and most of his fellow passengers tuned to news channels where they could already see aerial views of the crash, which shut down the entire airport for several hours.
“You close a major airport on a Fourth of July weekend, you got a lot of problems. And that’s what happened,” he said.
San Jose and Sacramento each got more than 15 flights they weren’t expecting, with the predictable consequences.
“What happens is people at the airport involved can’t get out,” said Michael Boyd, whose Boyd Group International consults on aviation logistics and planning. “You have people trying to get in, they get stuck at other airports, and you have the Fall of Saigon relived at airports all around the West Coast.”
It wasn’t quite that bad at Oakland International, which took in 11 extra flights, but the scene at baggage claim when we landed was a kind of organized chaos.
Boyd said matters were made worse because San Francisco is an international gateway and an international hub for United Airlines. “That inbound flight that can’t get into San Francisco, and has to go, say, to Oakland or Sacramento, people can’t get off the airplane,” he explained. “The reason they can’t is they haven’t been cleared through customs and immigration. And it might be hours.”
An Oakland airport spokesman said they had to scramble when international flights started landing and they weren’t staffed for international arrivals, because none were scheduled that day.
Some people complained bitterly about having to find their way across the Bay, from Oakland to San Francisco -- but they were the lucky ones. Airlines had to bus passengers to SFO from airports much farther afield, like Portland and Los Angeles.
Officials opened up two runways within a few hours, but with a key runway shut down for days to accommodate federal crash investigators and debris removal, delays and headaches continued well into this past week.
And that’s not the bad news. This is the bad news: Boyd said there’s no real fix for this -- and it’s only going to get worse as air traffic expands. He said that while federal projections of a doubling of air traffic volume over the next decade are overblown, traffic will still expand at 1 or 2 percent per year, “which means more people, more airplanes in the sky, and more disruptions when a runway in San Francisco, or in Miami, is taken out of operation.
“It’s just the nature of the beast,” he told me. “It’s like, if you take the 405 freeway and take one of the lanes out of it, what happens? It backs up. Well, it’s the same thing with our national air transportation system.”
While some airports have launched major terminal upgrades, there are virtually no major runway expansions on the drawing board, partly because there’s nowhere to expand, especially in California. Big destinations like LAX, Oakland and SFO are all hemmed in by water and urban development.
“There’s nothing in the cards that says air travel is gonna get easier.” Boyd lamented. “Airlines and airports are at capacity right now. Close one runway at Chicago O’Hare -- or at S.F. -- for any length of time, and the whole system is affected negatively. That’s not gonna change.”