SFO fails to plan for runway closure, and travelers — including some in SLO — lose again

A runway shuts down at the San Francisco International Airport and the ripple effect is felt around the world — including here in San Luis Obispo, where several flights to and from SFO have been canceled since the project started last weekend.

We’re not talking minor inconvenience. This is a major disruption of travelers’ lives and another sign of the disdain airlines have shown for their customers, from ousting them from flights to cramming them into ever smaller spaces to nickel-and-diming them for every little thing.

Here’s what’s most annoying: The 20-day closure of runway 28L, one of the busiest at the airport, was scheduled months ago. The airport announced as much in a press release issued March 20.

Surely, there was time to plan accordingly by shifting flights to other airports, or at least alerting travelers at the time they were booking (and before they pressed the fateful “purchase” button) that there could be delays or cancellations. That would have given them plenty of time to adjust their travel plans.

Instead, when the runway shutdown started last weekend, chaos ensued.

Many travelers weren’t aware of the planned closure or had just found out recently. According to posts on Tripadvisor, in late August United passengers were notified by email that SFO flights would be affected. They were given the opportunity to reroute to another airport at no charge.

Other passengers weren’t so lucky; their airlines made no effort to contact them and did not offer to waive charges for rebooking.

Remember, this was a known event — not a sudden, unexpected emergency like a thunderstorm, fire or earthquake.

In those cases, delays and cancellations would be understandable and forgivable.

In this case, they’re not.

For one, the airport did a lousy job of getting the word out; most news reports of the closure didn’t appear until late August.

Airlines share the blame for the SFO mess. They were well aware of the project in advance. In fact, SFO consulted with them to choose the best time to schedule the project, yet they appear to have waited until the last minute to react.

Some minor adjustments were made — the number of total flights was reduced by 13% during the 20-day construction period — but that obviously wasn’t enough.

Yet SFO made this rosy prediction in a news release: “With the voluntary schedule adjustments in place, flight delays are expected to average 30-45 minutes, with some flights experiencing maximum delays of approximately 2 hours.”

Um, no. According to the FAA website, on Wednesday some arriving flights were delayed an average of three hours and 1 minute.

There’s been outrage on Twitter:

  • “Airlines should have put warnings in place notifying customers who booked their travel during this period, of expected delays, as soon as they learned about it.”
  • “Two canceled flights and one delay later — I retract everything I said about how great it is to fly through SFO. What a mess.”
  • “Mass confusion, insanely crowded terminals. Why didn’t you plan for runway work accordingly instead of putting us through this chaos?”
  • “A 6hr delay later and an angry mob has formed at the counter. Sick.”

This outcome is completely unacceptable and can’t be allowed to be considered the “new normal” whenever any kind of repair work is done at an airport.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is charged with aviation consumer protection — and consumers need to be protected from situations like this mess at in San Francisco.

It cries out for a “lessons learned” follow-up.

We urge a thorough review of what went wrong, followed by development of policies to minimize disruptions when scheduled repairs are likely to interfere with air travel.

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