San Francisco International Airport will shut down two of its four runways for the entire summer to complete a federally mandated safety project, causing some flight delays out of Humboldt County.
With nearly all flights out of Arcata-Eureka Airport going to San Francisco, Arcata-Eureka Airport Program Coordinator Emily Jacobs said the runway closures "guarantee that you will have delays and some cancellations."
"When they're shutting down a couple of runways, it's going to be like consistent bad weather conditions," Jacobs said.
SFO plans to construct safety zones at both ends of runways 1L and 1R, a pair of northeast-facing strips that SFO uses for departures. This means all flights will use SFO's two other runways from mid-May to September. The work will cut the number of flights that can arrive in clear weather at peak hours by about 15 percent and change departing flight paths.
SFO will take various steps to minimize delays of arriving and even departing flights, spokesman Doug Yakel said. And the impact on travelers will not be dramatic, he said, noting the airport typically shuts down two of its runways 100 days of the year during strong winds.
"There is the possibility of delays during this period," said Yakel, "but we're working very hard to minimize whatever effect that this construction would have on passengers."
In order to "mitigate" the upcoming delays, Jacobs said SFO is "adjusting their flight schedule."
"They do work to decrease air traffic coming in," Jacobs said. "They may adjust flight schedules for international flights to come in at night, while local flights would be brought in during the day."
SFO already completed the safety project on the southeast-to-northwest-oriented runways it uses for arrivals. The airport lengthened and redesigned 28L and 28R last year to provide more room for aircraft that undershoot or overrun the runways, though even those measures did not prevent the pilots of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 from crash-landing on July 6, 2013, killing three people and injuring many others.
But SFO's two departure runways are shorter than its arrival paths and cannot be sufficiently lengthened to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements. So the airport will install what's called an Engineered Materials Arresting System, or EMAS, at the ends of the runways. Instead of pavement, the ground will consist of a material designed to collapse under the weight of an airplane, slowing its momentum.
While Arcata-Eureka Airport also experienced delays and a three-day closure when it had the system installed in 2010, Jacobs said it has been put to good use.
"There have been seven or eight runovers since EMAS was installed," Jacobs said. "... These projects can be inconvenient, but they are for safety."
Jacobs said the system's collapsible material also benefits the planes.
"Think of it like a concrete Swiss cheese filled with foam," Jacobs said. "In each instance that it has been deployed, there has been minimal damage to the aircraft. It's very cutting edge."
Jacobs said not having the system created delays of its own.
"An aircraft has to be at full throttle halfway down the runway in order to take off, but it has to be able to stop before the end of it in case an issue comes up," Jacobs said. "Before, if the aircraft was too heavy to stop, they had to boot 10 to 15 people off and say we're overweight."
As to how to plan for the upcoming delays at SFO, Jacobs said travelers should put a "good cushion" of time between connecting flights and expect some flights to be canceled.
"I'd also recommend they bring their patience and a very good book," Jacobs said.