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.
"We'll be one of the first U.S. airports to get them," Wilson said. "The FAA has written us a letter saying we'd better do something with the runways if we want to remain competitive with these new airplanes. That probably means putting runways in the bay."
At a meeting with several environmental groups last week, airport officials offered to buy land elsewhere on the bay and return it to wetlands if the groups would drop opposition to the landfill plan.
"We are willing to look at bringing 26,000 acres now used as salt ponds back to their original state," Wilson said. "That would restore 80% of the bay wetlands that have been intruded upon."
Some local environmental groups have welcomed the proposals, but others are wary.
"One of the environmental victories we have had in the Bay Area is that we have stopped filling in the bay," said Julia Bott, head of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We have not seen a fill of this scope in a long time. They are talking about building more than three-quarters of a mile into the bay."
Such a large landfill, Bott and other environmentalists contend, would set back protectionist efforts that for the past 20 years have halted the dumping of raw sewage and landfill into the bay.
"People come to the Bay Area to see the beauty of the bay," Bott said. "I don't know that they come to see it because they want to land in the middle of it."
She and other critics of the landfill proposal argue that airport officials should start diverting more flights to Oakland and San Jose, rather than build into the bay.
Wilson said that such an option is unworkable.
"San Francisco is a world-known destination for business and tourism," he said. "People don't fly to airports, they fly to cities. How many people around the world know the city of Oakland and know that it is just 12 miles across the bay?"
On a recent morning, several passengers said they were less concerned about the black star rating than about flight delays and the $2.5-billion expansion project that has made airport parking and traffic nightmarish for the past two years.
"I was surprised that San Francisco was lumped together with some kind of banana republic airports," said Michael Nathanson, a San Jose surgeon who frequently flies out of San Francisco.
Sipping coffee as he awaited his sister's arrival Wednesday, Nathanson said he will still use the airport despite the designation.
"I think they're getting a bum rap," he said. "I've never felt unsafe here."
Karin Ingvardsen, a retired travel agent who lives in Berkeley, said she has flown out of San Francisco hundreds of times since 1962 and that she won't stop now.
"I've been in treacherous airports," she said. "Hong Kong airport is treacherous. Small airports can be bad. But I was surprised by this rating. There have never really been accidents here. Maybe we just have very good pilots."
Standing at an Alaska Airlines counter where he had just learned that his flight to Palm Springs was overbooked and delayed by bad weather, real estate developer Gerry Hughes said runway configuration was the least of his worries at San Francisco.
"I live in Modesto and I try to fly out of Oakland or Sacramento whenever I can," Hughes said. "It's just less hassle. But when the only direct flight to where I have to go is here, this is where I'm going to go.
"I think about safety, but it is not going to change my plans. What I really hate are these delays."