Last year was the worst year in U.S. aviation history for flight delays and cancellations, and things will only get worse unless local governments and the nation's airports take steps to ease congestion, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
To that end, the FAA has given a $585,000 grant to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a Bay Area regional government agency, to study ways to avoid airport gridlock. Without reconfiguring Bay Area airports and integrating them more thoroughly into the regional and national transportation system, years of travel pain await, the agency said.
"We expect the number of air passengers to ramp up dramatically in the future," said Kirk Shaffer, the FAA's associate administrator for airports.
He projected that by 2025, San Francisco International's passenger traffic will grow 57 to 60 percent, Oakland International's 80 percent and San Jose International's 100 percent.
Given the extent of the challenge, "all options are on the table," Shaffer said at a press conference at SFO on Friday. Those options include basing many small, private aircraft at smaller, regional airfields instead of at major airports, improving and expanding the Bay Area's three major airports, and even running high-speed rail service between the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
"This is the first time the FAA has provided funding for study of nonaviation modes of transportation," Shaffer said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission will work closely with the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and local governments to come up with regional solutions, said Steve Heminger, executive director of MTC.
Research on overhauling the area's transportation is already under way, according to Heminger, who said the infusion of funds from the FAA will help Bay Area authorities wind up their study in about a year. The study will conclude by offering specific recommendations for change, he said.
Airport expansion has proven to be a thorny political issue in the recent past, especially an aborted SFO plan to build two new runways on bay fill, which raised the ire of environmentalists. SFO Airport Director John Martin said the broad scope of the new study is designed to come up with solutions to congestion without having to build runways in the bay.
"I am optimistic," Martin said. "Using technology, we can become more efficient. By using high-speed rail, we could reduce the number of people taking short-haul flights within California by 20 percent. ''
Martin also said persuading airlines to use fewer, larger aircraft could also lessen congestion at Bay Area airports, improve airline on-time performance and reduce the risk of accidents. SFO, Northern California's largest airport, has about 1,000 regularly scheduled commercial flights a day.
Martin acknowledged that persuading airlines to use larger planes could be a challenge. Most U.S. air carriers, cash-strapped in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks and recession early this decade, exchanged jumbo jets for smaller planes they knew they could fill.
Airline economics may have dictated that change, Martin said. "But the economics at SFO are exactly the opposite."
The airport will initiate discussions with airlines in an attempt to persuade carriers to go back to larger planes to increase their on-time departures and arrivals, he said.
Ultimately, the nation's entire air travel system needs to be upgraded, according to the FAA's Shaffer, who said gridlock faces not only the Bay Area, but also the big East Coast airports in New York, Newark and Philadelphia, airports in the Los Angeles basin and ultimately the San Diego, Phoenix, Miami, Chicago and Atlanta markets.