TOPICS > Science

Growing Airports

April 25, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPENCER MICHELS: John Martin has a problem. He is director of San Francisco International Airport, a once small facility that grew and grew. Now, he wants to build a new runway system extending far into San Francisco Bay, and that is upsetting environmentalists. Ralph Nobles has a plan. As an environmentalist, he wants the airport to restore thousands of acres of wetlands in the bay to compensate for the environmental problems with the proposed runways. That plan is controversial, but if his tradeoff works, it could have implications for expanding airports all over America.

RALPH NOBLES, Citizens’ Committee to Complete the Refuge: We have lost almost all of the bay’s historic wetlands, which are the support for the whole food chain of the bay. And so now the bay is suffering. It’s polluted, its wildlife is endangered. And we have the unique opportunity of being able to recover 80% of those lost wetlands that were taken away years ago before people realized the value of wetlands.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nobles says it’s a unique opportunity because the money to restore the wetlands isn’t available anywhere else but from the airport. Airport director martin, concerned about environmental objections, supports the exchange in principle.

JOHN MARTIN, Director, San Francisco International Airport: I think it ultimately may make very good sense from a public policy perspective that we can return 15 times as much to the bay as what we’re taking, then that can be a very good deal for the bay area itself.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nobles’ idea is the biggest mitigation or trade-off plan ever suggested for an airport. Today airports all over America are struggling to deal with growth that’s expected to double air traffic in the next 20 years. The most common answer is to enlarge the airport, but that is always controversial. Building the terminals, like this huge new international terminal in San Francisco, is relatively painless. Runways, however, are another matter. In St. Louis, the demolishing of a whole neighborhood for expanded runways brought howls of protest. Runways have also run into opposition in Boston, Detroit, and Atlanta, where citizens are concerned about noise, growth, and the environment. In San Francisco the current runway configuration dates back to the 40’s. It suffers from extensive weather-related delays, frustrating airline officials like United’s Frank Kent.

FRANK KENT, United Airlines Regional Director: This is one of the highest growth areas in the country, as you well know. And the business demand is tremendous and we can’t provide the level of service we’d like to because of the inclement weather and the effect on what is an inferior, inadequate, outdated infrastructure at the airport here in San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: That infrastructure consists of two sets of runways. One set is for takeoffs, another set allows two aircraft to approach and land at the same time, side by side. In good weather, the airport can handle 60 landings per hour. When the weather turns bad, it’s different. Captain Dick Deeds is a retired pilot who flew into San Francisco for decades.

SPENCER MICHELS: On a day like today, now, what happens in the airport when the weather is so lousy?

CAPT. RICHARD A. DEEDS, Retired Pilot: On a day like today with the bad weather, we can’t land on both runways– we can take off on both, but we can’t land on both– so that means we’re down to what we call single stream; we’re down to one runway so that one airplane can land, slow down, stop, and turn off the runway before the next airplane’s wheels touch the runway.

SPENCER MICHELS: And that cuts the number of…

CAPT. RICHARD A. DEEDS: That cuts the number of landings per hour at the airport by more than 50%.

SPENCER MICHELS: The unusually severe weather of the last five years has helped make San Francisco the most delayed major airport in the nation, and delays at one airport quickly cause backups around the country. On this day, United, the biggest operator here, canceled 41 out of 248 flights, and consolidated others.

PASSENGER: The incoming flight here in San Francisco got delayed, so our connection in Denver got real tight, and eventually they moved us to a flight from San Francisco to LA to go on to Houston. So we’ll get into Houston hopefully about midnight tonight.

SPENCER MICHELS: Airport officials say the only solution is bigger runways farther apart so it’s safe to land planes side-by-side in bad weather. And they say the only place to build on the densely populated San Francisco Peninsula is into the bay. One of their plans calls for as much as two square miles of new landfill, the biggest fill project in the bay in generations. But most environmentalists consider the bay to be sacred, and quickly voiced their opposition. Debbie Ruddock is with the Sierra Club.

DEBBIE RUDDOCK, Loma Prieta Chapter Sierra Club: We will do whatever we can to prevent the bay from being destroyed.

SPENCER MICHELS: Can you see any circumstances under which the Sierra Club would support bay fill?




SPENCER MICHELS: On the other hand, Nobles, who heads a group dedicated to restoring bay wetlands, is willing to cut a deal with the airport: His support of the runways, for airport support of marsh restoration.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some environmentalists think this is a bargain with the devil.

RALPH NOBLES: Well, that’s true. And I have had reason to disagree with some of my environmental colleagues on this point, because I try to look at the whole picture. And I see bad things about filling a portion of the bay, but I see the much larger value of restoring the wetlands.

SPENCER MICHELS: So the controversy is not the conventional environmentalists verses developers, but now includes environmentalists battling among themselves. Several governmental agencies– local, regional, state, and federal– will each have to give the plan an okay.

WILL TRAVIS, Bay Conservation & Development Commission: Our job is to be professionally skeptical and to ask the questions.

SPENCER MICHELS: One of the most influential is the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, whose executive director is Will Travis. The regional commission is charged with balancing the needs of development with the needs of the bay. But that’s not always easy to do when the sides don’t sort themselves out neatly.

WILL TRAVIS: One of the things the airport is saying is they plan to mitigate this project like you’ve never seen mitigation before. And there are some in the environmental community that are so enamored of the mitigation that they are willing to accept that we don’t look as carefully at the runways and the impact on the bay. We’re seeing it from the perspective of, if we do an objective investigation of what the needs are in the region to meet our future air transportation needs. And the conclusion is, we need new runways in the bay, and the impacts will be minimized and fully mitigated, we see a regional consensus coming together on that.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Commission assembled a panel of scientists who called for an ambitious program of research to determine what impact the runways would have on the bay. Professor Stephen Monismith at Stanford served on that panel. He and his graduate student developed a mathematical model of tides and currents in the south bay.

PROFESSOR STEPHEN G. MONISMITH, Stanford University: Here we see the arrows go up on the ebb and come down on the flood. The tides are going out, you see these long arrows going out, the tide is turning, and coming down the spine through the channel.

SPENCER MICHELS: So this is the airport the way they want to build it.

PROFESSOR STEPHEN MONISMITH: As proposed, that’s one of the configurations.

SPENCER MICHELS: Is there much effect if you build these runways?

PROFESSOR STEPHEN MONISMITH: Well, if you look closely, you can see this eddy that forms around the runway extension here itself. But other than that, the currents are almost unchanged over the entire rest of South San Francisco bay.

SPENCER MICHELS: That sounds like a minor change, but there are many unknowns. The state of California surveys fish populations around the bay, and some of its experts say that part of the bay isn’t well enough understood to say what might happen to the fish that inhabit the area. Monismith believes the long-term effects are hard to predict.

PROFESSOR STEPHEN MONISMITH: If you look at the existing runway configuration, which I believe was a fill in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, it’s sedimented up behind there. I think it’s a reasonable supposition that over what period of time, ten, 20 years, it would probably sediment in behind the new runway configuration.

SPENCER MICHELS: But scientific experiments may not be as important as whether the public trusts the airport. Airports almost always coexist uneasily with their neighbors. Sometimes even years of meetings and efforts on issues like noise have failed to convince the local population that the airport is working to find a solution they can see and live with.

SPOKESPERSON: More planes need to be over the bay rather than over congested neighborhoods.

SPENCER MICHELS: The mayor of Foster City, a town in the airport flight path, is suspicious of claims that the new runways will help solve the noise problem.

MAYOR DEBORAH E.G. WILDER, Foster City, California: I don’t want to stop progress, but they haven’t followed through on their promises to our community before so I’m not inclined to say, “gee, this is fine.” You’re going to need to show to me up front, in writing, in a commitment that we can enforce that they are in fact going to stand by their commitments.

SPENCER MICHELS: Airport Director Martin thinks some of the opponents have blown the risks out of proportion.

JOHN MARTIN: I think some of our vocal opponents are folks who have a very low risk profile. That means they recognize this is a big project, and they are concerned that even though we’ve committed to achieving net environmental gains, there is a possibility it could all go South. And as long as there is any possibility that there could be increased noise or environmental losses to the bay, that they don’t want to even come to the table to discuss this project.

SPOKESPERSON: The plane has not arrived yet.

SPENCER MICHELS: Passengers who wonder when the delays will be cleared up are in for a long wait. Governmental reviews could make a long-term solution as much as a decade away, and that’s par for the course when it comes to expanding airports in America.