Reduced airline traffic at SFO opens door for more bizav ops

 - May 29, 2008, 7:15 AM

The major reductions in airline passenger traffic at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) since September 11 may actually benefit business aviation activities at the airport, as well as SkyWest Airlines, the sole regional airline operation remaining at the large West Coast airport.

Until recently, SFO was riding the dot-com boom, with record traffic and plans for expansion well under way. In fact, about a year ago the airport opened a new multi-billion-dollar international terminal. But the combination of terrorism and the recession–stemming largely from the bursting of the high-tech bubble–has made for reductions in passenger boardings and airline movements. According to an airport spokesman, SFO handled 41 million passengers in 2000, but September 11 is expected to drag the 2001 tally down to about 37.58 million, an 8-percent decline.

“Before September 11, we believed that even with the decline in the economy we would handle about the same amount of passengers as we did in 2000,” the spokesman reported. “In fact, through the end of August, we were on track with that, having handled about 27.3 million passengers. But just since September 11, we are estimating as much as a 25-percent decline for the last four months of last year.”

The decline in passenger traffic, of course, has also translated into fewer commercial flights for the large jet carriers. In all of 2000 at SFO, there were 327,700 operations (takeoffs and landings) by airliners (not counting regional-airline and air-taxi operations). The same number was being projected for last year, and for the first eight months of last year, the numbers actually held at 218,467, or 27,308 per month. But since September 11 the monthly average has declined 22 percent. That will result in a projected 96,125 operations for the last four months of 2001, for a year-end total of 314,592–a decline of 4 percent over the previous year.

During 2000 there were 73,500 regional airline and air taxi movements, while general aviation movements numbered 55,800. In addition, there were about 2,000 movements by military aircraft that year.

United Airlines’ operations illustrate the effects of September 11. “On September 1 United operated 238 daily departures at the airport, but schedule reductions on October 31 including the elimination of its short-haul Shuttle By United service, slashed the airline’s daily departures to 160.”

Interestingly, United’s schedule reduction has had little effect on SkyWest, the major’s United Express partner at SFO. According to Steve Hart, the St. George, Utah-based regional airline’s vice president of market development, SkyWest has reduced its schedule by only two daily departures at SFO since September 11.

With 77 flights per day, SkyWest’s 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jets are now flying the four daily United flights from SFO to Santa Barbara, Calif., which United’s 737s once flew. Additionally, service from SFO to San Luis Obispo, Calif., using Embraer EMB- 120 Brasilias, has been increased from five to six times daily.

“The only significant change we made, other than our takeover of the Santa Barbara service, was in the San Francisco-Fresno market, which was being flown by six RJ trips per day before September 11,” Hart reported. “Under our current schedule, we are maintaining one daily RJ trip in that market but flying an additional eight trips with the Brasilias. I would actually characterize the changes we made at SFO to be minimal in comparison to what we have done at our other United hubs.”

Less Congestion

For business aviation, the huge cutbacks in commercial flying may make it easier for corporate aircraft to gain access to the airport, especially under low-visibility conditions. SFO’s two parallel arrival runways are too closely spaced for simultaneous operations during fog or other inclement weather that restricts visibility, thus resulting in frequently delayed arrivals.

“Whenever we have bad weather I begin losing incoming flights to Oakland International Airport,” said Steven True, general manager of Signature Flight Support, which is the only FBO at San Francisco. “Because we haven’t had any inclement weather since September 11, it is too soon to tell if the cutbacks in commercial flights will reduce delays, and cut down the number of aircraft that would divert to Oakland. That will be the real test.”

True reported that nearly all of Signature’s customers at SFO come from the corporate aviation community. Unlike the situation with the commercial airlines, the economy has not really affected the number of business aircraft arrivals at the FBO. In fact, he said, the numbers may even have grown.

“For all of last year, we averaged about 35 arrivals per day, which was what we did in 2000. Since September 11, we are actually seeing our business expand. We believe this is because of the continued growth of fractional- ownership programs, and more frequent use of business aircraft, which is what we handle most here,” he said.

Most of Signature’s traffic is tied to events in downtown San Francisco, which True said has continued “to do a considerable amount” of convention business.

And despite the business downturn, the number of based aircraft at Signature’s SFO facility, which has two 20,000-sq-ft hangars, has remained about the same. “Right now, that stands at 15, and at the same time, larger business aircraft, including Boeing Business Jets, are showing up on our ramp in increasing numbers,” True pointed out. “This has made for some cramping of parking spaces for transient aircraft; but the airport so far has been able to accommodate any overflow of executive aircraft.”

Corporate aviation at SFO, in fact, will be among the beneficiaries of a proposed $3.5 billion runway modernization program, which is going forward despite a projected airport revenue shortfall of $100 million due to the post-September 11 traffic reduction. That program will result in the construction of new runways, which would be configured to permit simultaneous arrivals in low-visibility conditions.

“We decided to move ahead with the runway project because all of the major studies that needed to be done have either been completed or are nearing completion,” said an SFO airfield development spokeswoman. “However, because of the deficit, some of the smaller studies, mostly on the legal, planning and communications side, have been frozen.”

The two most important studies–the environmental impact report (EIR), which is being carried out by San Francisco’s Office of Environmental Review, and the environmental impact statement, (EIS), being done by the FAA but funded by the city–are still slated for completion before the end of this year. “We do not expect the events of September 11 to result in any significant slipping of the schedule for completion of both of those studies,” she remarked.

What could have an effect is the approval by San Francisco voters on November 6 of Proposition D. The ballot initiative stipulates that any project that will create more than 100 acres of landfill in San Francisco Bay must have voter approval. The runway project could create between 500 and 800 acres, depending on the footprint and type of construction. Still, the spokeswoman disagrees with recent press reports that Proposition D (which the airport supported) could kill the project.

Other major capital improvement projects, however, have been put on indefinite hold. According to an SFO spokesman, the suspended programs include a $220 million redevelopment of Terminal 2–the old international terminal–for domestic use. In spite of the fact that the design and planning had already been completed in June, along with some preliminary construction–mostly old jetway removal–the program, which was expected to take 24 to 27 months, was halted by September 11. At this time, no restart date has been announced.

The other major project to be indefinitely shelved was a proposed new hotel on the airport property. That, the spokesman said, was in the initial planning stage on September 11.