San Francisco Int’l Installs Runway Safety Areas With More Than a Year Left on the Congressional Clock

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) completed a two-phase runway safety area (RSA) project in early August (2014) — beating its own schedule by one month and finishing more than a year ahead of the congressionally mandated Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for all federally obligated and Part 139 airports.


Project: Runway Safety Area Improvements

Location: San Francisco Int’l Airport

Budget: $226 million

Anticipated Cost: $223 million

Funding: Federal grants; airport general revenue bonds

Runways 10L-28R & 10R-28L: Length extensions

Completed: June 2013

Runways 1R-19L & 1L-19R: Engineered Material Arresting Systems

Completed: August 2014

Construction Joint Venture: Golden Gate Constructors (Graniterock Construction & DeSilva Gates Construction)

Construction Manager: Parsons Brinckerhoff

Engineered Material Arresting System:  Zodiac Aerospace

Runway Lighting: Eaton/Crouse-Hinds

Primary Benefit: Enhancing safety by reducing personal injury & aircraft damage during runway overruns, undershoots & veer-offs

The new safety features, estimated to cost about $223 million, are designed to significantly reduce personal injury and aircraft damage in the event of runway overruns, undershoots and veer-offs, per FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-13. 

Jim Chiu, project manager at SFO, attributes the timely completion of the program to careful planning and a cooperative partnership among the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), airport and its project partners. The airport’s high traffic volume (41+ million annual passengers) and unique geographic constraints made planning the project an especially challenging feat.

Because SFO is essentially landlocked, construction options were limited, Chiu explains. The airport’s four intersecting runways are sandwiched between the San Francisco Bay on the right and Highway 101 on the left. “There’s not a whole lot of real estate to make the safety area improvements the FAA required,” he says.

After considering multiple strategies, SFO employed two different methods to comply with the federal mandate. Extensions sufficed for the airport’s two longest runways, known as the 10-28s. But improving its North-South runways, 1R-19L and 1L-19R, was not as straightforward. Because they are shorter and primarily used for departures, the airport did not have the luxury of simply adding length, explains Chiu.

Instead, SFO installed an Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) from Zodiac Aerospace on both ends of both runways. Each is a bed of crushable concrete material similar to those used for runaway truck ramps on highways.

Phasing was critical for both portions of the RSA project, Chiu notes. Crews were able to complete most of Phase I, which focused on the 10-28s, during night-time shifts and a series of brief closures that lasted a couple of days, reports SFO Public Information Officer Doug Yakel.

Phase II was a different story, because there simply wasn’t an easy way to install the EMAS beds, Yakel relates. Planners conducted “extensive” delay analysis and considered the impact of various options on the airport, airlines and surrounding communities, he recalls. Ultimately, they determined that simultaneously closing the 1-19 runways was the most expedient to accomplish the work.

Simultaneous closures, however, required SFO to operate solely on the 10-28s throughout the summer. Fortunately, the strategy was not new to the airport, Yakel stresses. “It’s a configuration we sometimes go to based on wind conditions,” he explains. As such, air traffic controllers at SFO are very familiar with the associated procedures, and the airport felt good about the plan from a safety perspective, Yakel notes. 

Preparing for Delays

Planners scheduled the EMAS installations on runways 1L and 1R to begin in mid-May (2014), because much of the work required dry weather; and San Francisco typically receives the least rain during summer. Although the associated runway closures were at odds with airlines’ peak travel times, scheduled closures were deemed more desirable than less predictable weather- and construction-driven delays. 

As it turns out, delays during construction closures “matched very closely” with the planners’ predictions, reports Yakel. Computer models indicated that the airport could expect average delays of 15 to 20 minutes in good weather and up to 30 minutes in bad weather. Actual delays during good weather averaged about 15 minutes during peak traffic, and Yakel reports that delays in less-than-optimal weather were actually the same as if the airport had all four runways operational. (That said, the Bay Area airport is notoriously plagued by weather-related delays.)

To help manage congestion and delays during construction, SFO implemented departure metering, a procedure that has been successful at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Armed with specific individual pushback times, pilots knew that when they got to the end of the runway, they wouldn’t sit there for 45 minutes burning fuel; they would be slotted for takeoff promptly, Yakel explains.

The airport also used FAA’s Closely Spaced Parallel Runway procedure to enhance operational efficiency. And SFO airlines made voluntary adjustments to their summer flight schedules.

Advance planning to anticipate and minimize the impact of delays, along with the departure metering system and a quality construction team, combined to make the project a success, Chiu reflects.

To ease the inherent disruptions of construction during the EMAS installation, SFO captured both ends of the two runways and fenced off the construction site so workers inside the fenced area would not require aircraft operating area (AOA) badging. “That was one way of protecting the workers as well as the airfield,” Chiu explains.

“Safety and security are our top priority,” he continues. “By differentiating the construction site from the AOA, we were able to expedite the work with minimal impact to operations.”

In addition, the project’s schedule included cushion for “unknowns,” adds Yakel. For example, time was budgeted to allow for precipitation, but it didn’t prove to be a hindrance. Similarly, there was time built in for crews to deal with airfield surprises such as unmarked utilities; but few materialized. “(There were) no show-stoppers during either portion of the project,” he recalls.

Chiu also highlights SFO’s process of pre-qualifying bidders and attracting expert contractors by offering incentive bonuses. Both strategies helped the airport meet the FAA guidelines within a tight timeframe and under budget. Originally budgeted at $226 million, the RSA project is anticipated to come in at $223 million.

Parsons Brinckerhoff provided construction management support to the airport staff during both phases of the runway safety improvement project. Alfred Baniowski, the firm’s project manager, reports that crews completed roughly $1 million worth of civil work each day during the closure of the 1-19 runways. “That’s amazing,” he reflects. “I still can’t believe we did it.”

Baniowski attributes the project’s success to the partnerships SFO built with all of its team members.

While SFO did not lengthen runways 1L and 1R, it did reconfigure them and relocate their landing lights, navigation systems and other equipment accordingly. Eaton, the airport’s power management company, provided LED runway centerlines, holdbars and touchdown zones. It also supplied new runway edge lights and taxiway fixtures.

Robert Scariano, the western region sales manager for Eaton’s Crouse-Hinds airport lighting division, says the PROAPF products installed at SFO can use up to 53% less power than other lights, and they will be easier for airfield technicians to maintain.  Crews also constructed a new taxiway leading to the two reconfigured runways.

Community Outreach

Yakel and his team worked to inform as many people as possible about the runway project and its impacts — especially passengers traveling through SFO during runway closures and the communities that surround the airport. 

In addition to making presentations at city council meetings and holding an airport noise abatement roundtable, SFO personnel spent about six months working with nearby cities that would experience increased air traffic during the temporary runway closures. Printed information was sent to about 12,000 residents who would be most directly affected.

“It’s always important to remember neighbors,” Yakel notes.

SFO also teamed with FAA personnel to host media days before and after the project. “I think it was very important to be transparent throughout this process,” Yakel reflects.  


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