Landing Rules Changed at SFO After Air Canada Close Call

Photo Source: FlyerTalk

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials in the United States have changed nighttime landing rules at San Francisco after a landing Air Canada jet nearly hit three planes holding short of an active runway last month. You can read about the incident in depth here.

“The FAA will no longer issue visual approaches to air crews approaching SFO at night when an adjacent parallel runway is closed,” said FAA Public Affairs Manager Ian Gregor. This means that planes will be required to use instrument-guided landing systems or satellite-based systems when landing at SFO during nighttime hours.

Pilots that fly at SFO regularly are happy with the instrument new requirement. Shem Malmquist, a Boeing 777 pilot, says that they are a positive step, since ILS systems provide clear guidance to pilots and alerts them if they veer off course. He says challenges are due to noise-abatement requirements that require planes to be higher than normal and farther east off the bay. Consequently, pilots must take an angled approach into the airport.

“Our human visual systems evolved for land-based creatures that moved only as fast as their legs could carry them. We adapt pretty well, but flight, with its combination of height, weather, and speed, can fool them,” said Malmquist. “The use of an instrument approach keeps the pilots closely aligned with the runway threshold.”

An AirCanada plane similar to that involved in an incident last month. The incident is leading to new FAA regulation of how controllers at SFO guide planes safely to the ground.
Photo Source: Max Trimm / Layoverhub

In addition, new regulation requires that at least to controllers be in the tower during the late-night rush periods. Gregor says that though two controllers were on duty at the time, only one was in the tower, and the controller that was working was busy speaking with another facility moments before the incident.

“Following the event, SFO tower management adopted a policy requiring two controllers to be on position working traffic until the late-night arrival rush is over,” Gregor said.

These new requirements eliminate all the sources of error that were present during the Air Canada incident. First, Air Canada 759, the landing aircraft involved in the incident, was cleared for a visual landing on runway 28 Right (28R). Its corresponding Runway, 28 Left (28L), was closed and darkened at the time. The closing of runway 28L confused the pilots of the A320, causing them to line up for Taxiway C (Charlie), which also runs parallel to 28R.

A diagram of the runways at SFO shows the close proximity of runway 28R and taxiway C.

Sources state that the crew flight 759 didn’t use computer guidance when lining up to land, which is not uncommon. This added to the pilot confusion, as they were unaware that they had lined up with the wrong strip.

“When these conditions prevail, our controllers will issue pilots Instrument Landing System approaches or satellite-based approaches, which help pilots line up for the correct runway,” said Gregor.

However, these changes aren’t the only things coming from the incident. The FAA also plans to start testing modified radar systems at its Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City by the end of the year. The new system would make an airport’s ground surveillance systems alert the tower when a plane is lined up for a taxiway instead of a runway.

This is helpful because, as Malmquist says, it’s difficult for a controller in the tower to determine whether an incoming plane is lined up with a runway or an adjacent taxiway. This new radar system will give controllers more warning if a plane is lined up incorrectly, allowing them to give a go-around command sooner.