The FAA Is Investigating Yet Another SFO Runway Incident

Man, I don’t know what’s going on at SFO, but…

Last July an Air Canada flight had an incident at SFO. The A320 was flying from Toronto to San Francisco, and accidentally lined up to land on the taxiway instead of the runway. To make matters worse, there were four planes on the taxiway that were waiting to take off (a United 787 headed to Singapore, a Philippine Airlines A340 headed to Manila, a United 787 headed to Sydney, and a United 737 headed to Orlando), so you can imagine how much fuel they had.

The Air Canada pilots were clearly confused. On final approach they asked air traffic control to confirm that the runway was clear, because they saw lights on it. Air traffic control confirmed the runway was clear. The Air Canada plane only realized it was about to land on the taxiway when the pilots of one of the planes waiting for takeoff told ATC what was going on. Days after the event we found out that the planes were less than 50 feet apart.

Fortunately this incident ended well and SFO made some changes as a result of it to prevent something similar from happening in the future, though this was just seconds away from being one of the most catastrophic aviation incidents in history.

Well, now the FAA is investigating yet another SFO runway incident. This time around it involves this Tuesday’s Aeromexico flight 688 from Mexico City to San Francisco. The plane was given clearance to land on runway 28R at SFO. Here’s what happened, per an FAA spokesperson:

“Aeromexico Flight 668 was cleared to land on Runway 28R, and correctly read back that clearance. When the plane was about a mile from the airport, air traffic controllers noticed the aircraft was lined up for Runway 28L and instructed the crew to execute a missed approach. A Virgin America jet was on Runway 28L at the time,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Now, this incident isn’t as severe as what happened to the Air Canada jet that potentially only missed four planes by about 50 feet. After all, this plane was still a mile from the runway. However, it’s still puzzling that in daylight on a clear day the pilots could make this mistake. Based on their approach it would appear that they assumed the taxiway on the left was actually runway 28L, and that runway 28L was actually runway 28R (or something).

Fortunately the air traffic controllers caught this and the plane was ordered to go around, and we can certainly hope that the pilots would have seen the Virgin America plane that was on the runway they were approaching (though you’d think they would have already seen this if they were only a mile way).

It’s almost starting to seem like SFO has some sort of a Bermuda Triangle effect on pilots. Or maybe there’s just increased interest in SFO incidents following what happened with Air Canada. I’ll be curious to see what comes of this investigation.


  1. @anon really? You post as anonymous just to post some dumb comment like that on a post that relates to a Mexican airline? Btw this is also why a wall is pointless…just saying. But yeah take your racism and ignorance some other place. Like breitbart. And don’t be a coward while you’re at it. If you’re going to comments like that, at least me man enough to not do it anonymously.

  2. I found anon’s statement to be a funny, sarcastic critique of the wall and those commentators here who always turn the most banal posts into political firestorms.

  3. Anon, you are not supposed to have an opinion that liberals don’t like and certainly not post it anywhere.

    I have seen a lot of hypocritical liberals as well. Collectively they say something and individually do something else. Like those rapists in Hollywood. Our all those women suddenly waking up to protect others.

    They know when to milk the media.

  4. BTW racism is not illegal. My right to hate any race and talk bad about it is protected by the constitution.

  5. You would think they’d start to require approaches to be started on ILS (or a kind of ILS confirmation), even under visual conditions, and allowed to continue under visual, to avoid this kind of confusion.

  6. It shouldn’t happen, but those runways are awfully close to each other (like 500 feet apart). I can’t think of another major airport where the runways are so close. They may need to enhance the approach lighting and runway markings in some way to mitigate this happening.

  7. Richard is spot-on. SFO has the closest runways of any major US airport at 750 feet. Plus the design is particularly symmetric (two pairs of runways intersecting the other pair at 90 degree angles roughly midway, let alone taxiways). It doesn’t absolve pilots, of course, but that’s a big reason why. If you watch takeoffs and landings at SFO, it’s slightly terrifying; landings and takeoffs, even on a clear sunny day, are something like 20-30 seconds apart from crossing each other.

    SFO also suffers from frequent delays due to this highly subpar configuration—basically whenever there’s any fog or rain. The airport had planned for decades to do more Bay infill to resolve this, but environmentalists killed any prospects of that ever happening. The long-term plan is for the FAA NexGen system to allow more automated guidance, but who knows when or if that will ever get off the ground.

  8. As a former Air Traffic Controller at SFO let me add my $0.02 worth. The runway center lines are 750 feet apart. The edges of the runways are closer. While there is quite a bit of attention being paid to loss of separation issues because of Air Canada there have always been less than minimum separation incidents. In the past there wasn’t CNN and only a few people monitored airplane frequencies. Now days these frequencies are constantly being monitored and issues reported to the media so it appears that these problems are increasing.

    On another note…. Can you remove the political comments? They are really not very additive.

  9. I walk my Greyhound’s around the park that surrounds SFO. I saw an AF 744 make a roaring go around three years ago and counted the 39 minutes it took to go around and land. At one time they’d land and take off planes at the same time which scared people. Don’t see that much anymore..

  10. One more reason to monitor ILS even if cleared for approach !
    The best insurance you can have for free when using parallel runways !

  11. You say that 1 mile final is far away, but it really isn’t. It’s about 25 to 30 seconds from landing…

  12. @ Ole — I was making that point as a relative matter. With the previous incident, the plane was *50 feet* from hitting one of the four planes on a taxiway. A mile is much further than 50 feet. I didn’t say one mile is far away, I said that it isn’t as severe of an incident. To quote the post:
    “Now, this incident isn’t as severe as what happened to the Air Canada jet that potentially only missed four planes by about 50 feet. After all, this plane was still a mile from the runway.”

  13. @Quacky, those runway numbers aren’t just there for reference, they show the direction they face. ’28’ is 280 degrees. Since they are parallel, they have to both be 28.

  14. @Ben, it *allegedly* was 50 ft above ground, unless you know something I don’t?

    Regardless my point was to emphasize that although the aircraft allegedly was further away from touching down, one mile final is still very close. I feel that you wrote it in a way where that wasn’t done. The average reader probably doesn’t know really know how long it tales.

  15. I’m still floored by the AC incident. Runways are illuminated with white beacons, taxiways are blue. I’ve not flown through SFO, but I’d assume they have LED airfield lights by now, wherein the color difference is even more dramatic.

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