Thousands of Flight Delays and Cancellations at SFO: Here's What to Expect

Travelers look at a departures board that displays canceled flights at San Francisco International Airport on Sept. 9, 2019.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated Thursday at 9:25 a.m.:

More than 2,400 flights have been delayed or canceled at San Francisco International Airport since crews began repairing the base layer of a runway on Sept. 7.

As of Thursday morning, Flight Aware said 1,765 flights have been delayed and 663 canceled during the six-day period, but the numbers continue to rise.

The Federal Aviation Administration's website reported some arriving flights may "be delayed an average of two hours and 34 minutes," which has decreased since earlier in the week.

“The project is on track, exactly where we expect to be at this stage,” SFO spokesman Doug Yakel wrote in an email to KQED.

But some industry analysts are critical of the number of travel disruptions.

"There is plenty of responsibility for the problems to go around," said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. "The airport, I think was very clear in what was going to happen, but I think the challenge is either the airlines did not fully understand the impact that this might have, or that they chose not to understand."

Other major airports that have undergone runway construction — such as John F. Kennedy International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport — "somehow managed these projects better," Harteveldt said.

Original story:

Flight delays and cancellations at San Francisco International Airport continue this week after crews began repairing the base layer of a runway over the weekend.

Since Saturday, 800 flights have been delayed and 375 canceled, according to SFO spokesman Doug Yakel.

As of Monday morning, the Federal Aviation Administration's website reported some arriving flights may "be delayed an average of 3 hours and 45 minutes” due to the ongoing reconstruction.

“The vast majority of those are flights that were canceled in advance of this closure," Yakel said. "There are still some day-of cancellations that we're seeing, but most of those occurred in advance, in anticipation of this project."

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Why is this happening?

Runway 28L, SFO's second-longest runway, has been showing signs of wear and tear where it intersects with two other runways. This area is the busiest section of the airport's runway system, and more than 68% of flights crossed over it in 2018, according to SFO's website.

Deep pavement repair requires two of the airport's four runways to be closed at all times and is typically done only twice a century, according to Yakel.

But this isn't the first time SFO has repaired this runway in recent years. In 2017, the airport repaved its entire top layer, which should last eight to 10 years, but discovered the base layer's fatigue during the process.

After additional investigation, airport staff decided the best solution would be to excavate a 1,900-foot section of the runway to ensure long-term reliability. The federally-funded project is expected to cost $16.2 million.

The runway will be closed for 20 days, and the airport is expected to resume normal operations on Sept. 27.

"This is a terrible time for SFO to do this work. It is the start of the business travel season," said Harteveldt, the travel industry analyst. "I am concerned that there could be a long negative hangover in terms of how people view San Francisco International Airport and San Francisco itself."

But the project team stated it selected the three-week time period from Sept. 7-27 after input from airlines at SFO, hoping to avoid busy summer and holiday travel seasons. The time period also has a low probability for rain, which could affect the asphalt paving.

Travelers sit on a bench at San Francisco International Airport on Sept. 9, 2019. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

How can you avoid flight delays or cancellations?

If you've already booked a flight at SFO during the next several weeks, you can ask your airline about a fee waiver to reschedule your flight.

United Airlines is already offering fee waivers for travelers to change their flights or connect in a different city.

Naturally, travelers on Twitter started expressing their frustration within the first few days of the reconstruction.

If you can't avoid a trip between now and Sept. 27, it might be a better idea to fly out of another major Bay Area airport, such as Oakland or San Jose.

For travelers who must fly out of SFO, the airport suggests you book an early-morning flight before 9 a.m. for the best chance at avoiding long delays.

KQED's Sara Hossaini and Angela Corral contributed to this report.

Correction: The article identified the number of delays as of Tuesday afternoon as 1,1154. It was 1,154. We regret the error.

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