San Francisco airport closes major runway for weeks, frustrating thousands of fliers

The 20-day closure of a major San Francisco International Airport runway has just begun, but it’s already causing travel nightmares for fliers at the Northern California hub.

Runway 28L, which is SFO’s busiest and second longest, closed on Sept. 7 and won’t reopen until Sept. 27 as the airport creates a new base layer on a 1,900-foot section of runway and fixes drainage and lighting, according to airport officials. They warned that “all dates are weather-dependent” and that “runway and taxiway closures ... will affect normal operations.”

Chuck Navigante, an SFO duty manager, said 312 departing and arriving flights were significantly delayed as of 5 p.m. Sunday, with 131 flights canceled, Patch reported.

“It’s pretty much going to remain this way for the duration of the runway work,” Navigante said, according to Patch.

More than 68 percent of SFO’s usual flights cross the closed runway areas, the airport said.

Airport duty manager Chris Morgan said most of the weekend’s canceled flights were regional trips, often within California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Travelers are already frustrated, with 48-year-old Jennifer Carden stuck at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., after her San Francisco-bound flight home was delayed for hours Sunday.

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“They knew it was going to be bad, but they didn’t tell us,” Carden said, according to the Chronicle. “There was no warning at all. That’s just not OK.”

Officials said the September dates were chosen to avoid ruining travel plans during the busier summer and winter holiday travel seasons. San Francisco’s September weather is also typically dry, and dry conditions are needed to cure layers on the new runway.

The best bet for avoiding delays is to fly before 9 a.m. Pacific Time, airport officials said.

A smaller portion of Runway 1L will also get a tune-up, the airport said.

Airport officials said in a news release Sept. 5 that after Runway 28L closed at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 7, construction workers would “immediately begin the process of removing the existing runway layers to create a new base layer below the surface.”

Officials said that failing to fix this section of the runway would increase “the potential for unexpected pavement failures, which would require unplanned closures to address. These would give airlines, and travelers, little notice of the potential delays and cancellations which would result from the unexpected runway closure.”

Travelers are advised to expect delays averaging 30 to 45 minutes, even though total flights at SFO have been cut 13 percent over the 20-day construction window. Some flights could be delayed up to two hours, airport officials warned.

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Last month, United offered to let customers adjust their travel plans during the closure for free, and other airlines have also warned their passengers of possible issues, USA Today reported.

“We have already adjusted our flight schedule at SFO during the runway closure, and customers who are impacted have been proactively notified,” said American Airlines spokesman Curtis Blessing, according to USA Today. “Per our normal schedule change process, if a change doesn’t meet a customer’s needs, they can make additional changes and/or seek a full refund without fees.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.