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"New radar promises to reduce SFO delays"


 
Friday, October 22, 2004

New radar promises to reduce SFO delays
System helps air traffic controllers see in fog 
By Justin Jouvenal
The San Mateo (CA) County Times


S.F. AIRPORT -- When the fog rolls in, the flights stack up.

It's a simple equation that has been frustrating travelers at SFO for
decades, but next Tuesday, a new radar system will come on-line that
promises to alleviate some of those problems, airport officials said. 

The $20 million system, known by the acronym PRM/SOIA, will allow air
traffic controllers, in effect, to peer through the fog and guide jets
safely onto SFO's runways. 

SFO will become only the fourth airport in the nation to employ the
state-of-the-art technology, which could allow the airport to land up to 25
percent more flights during bad weather. 

"It's not going to solve the delay problem, but it's going to help," said
Mike McCarron, an airport spokesman. "It should help stop delays that begin
in the morning, then ripple throughout the day." 

The system will also have a welcome byproduct for Foster City, Redwood
Shores and other cities close to the Bay -- less jet noise. Currently,
planes skirt over the edge of Foster City when they approach, but when
PRM/SOIA is in use, it will push approaches further out over the Bay. 

"The real drop in noise should come at night," said Marland Townsend, the
mayor of Foster City. 

During bad weather, SFO must shut down one of its narrowly spaced landing
strips because they are only 750 feet apart. Federal guidelines require
runways to be 4,300 feet apart to land planes side-by-side in bad weather.
The shutdown halves SFO's arrival capacity from 60 to 30 flights an hour. 

PRM/SOIA could pump up the number of arrivals to as high as 38 an hour. SFO
officials expect the system will be in use one out of every three days there
is inclement weather. McCarron said it will be particularly effective during
the spring and summer when the fog regularly blankets the airport and it is
most busy. 

The system actually consists of two pieces: Precision Runway Monitoring
(PRM) and Simultaneous Offset Instrument Approach (SOIA). 

PRM is a high-tech radar that scans four to five times faster than the
current 1970s-era technology, allowing air traffic controllers to more
precisely monitor the flight paths of aircraft. The system sends out an
alert if the planes veer into a protective cushion of airspace between them.


The SOIA system allows planes to approach one runway at an angle, thereby
ensuring they have greater separation. Once the plane descends below the
2,100-foot cloud ceiling, the pilot banks the plane back to a normal
approach toward the runway. 

But PRM/SOIA has not been without its critics. Some pilots believe the
system requires unsafe maneuvers if certain types of planes are flown. And
Mark Sherry, an official with National Air Traffic Controller's Union
Western Pacific Region, wrote in a posting on the union's Web site that he
thought PRM/SOIA would hardly ever be used because of the strict weather
conditions required to turn it on. When contacted about the posting, Sherry
refused to elaborate on the comment. 

The system has been in development for six years at SFO. It was a
partnership between the airport, United Airlines, the Airline Pilot's
Association and others. 

Similar systems are already in use at airports in Philadelphia, Minneapolis
and St. Louis. McCarron said the system would not replace the need for new
runways at SFO.


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