Arriving SFO Aircraft Can Expect a Few Changes

Radar limitation contributed to landing incident at San Francisco last month.

SFO runway
In response to an Air Canada pilot's near-tragic mistake last month, the FAA announced some fixes to prevent a similar, or worse, situation.NTSB

On the heels of the NTSB's investigative update into the July 7 nighttime close call between aircraft at San Francisco International Airport, the FAA announced plans to introduce both procedural and technology fixes to prevent a reoccurrence.

About midnight local time on July 7, an Air Canada A320 on a visual approach nearly landed on taxiway “Charlie” that runs parallel to Runway 28R. Air Canada Flight 759 descended as low as 59 feet above the taxiway before the flying pilot executed a go-around, returning a few minutes later for a safe landing on Runway 28R. At the time of the incident, four other aircraft were sitting on the taxiway facing the approaching Airbus.

The parallel Runway 28L was closed at the time of the incident with its lights turned off and a flashing yellow “X” in place near the approach end. ATIS information “Quebec” included an advisory at the time that Runway 28 Left was closed and that its approach lighting system was out of service. Lights for taxiway Charlie were turned on to a default setting that included green centerline lights along its length and blue edge lights.

During the post-incident interviews, both Air Canada pilots said they believed the lighted runway on their left was Runway 28L and that they were lined up for Runway 28R. They also stated that they did not recall seeing aircraft on taxiway Charlie, but that something did not look right to them. It is unclear whether the pilots were flying totally by outside visual reference or were alternating the arrival with glances at the in-cockpit ILS information they would normally have set up.

Adding to the confusion, federal investigators reported the Airbus dropped off the tower's radar screen about 12 seconds prior to landing making it difficult for controllers to confirm precisely where the Airbus was headed. Listening to a recording of ATC communications during the incident makes it clear that a pilot on the taxiway yelling, "Where's this guy going? He's on the taxiway," is what prompted the Air Canada crew to initiate the go-around.

An FAA spokesperson said aircraft will no longer conduct visual approaches at night to SFO when one of the parallel runways is closed. The agency will also now require two controllers to remain on watch out the tower cab windows during busy late-night hours. Although on July 7 two controllers were inside the tower cab, one was talking on the phone to another ATC facility in the seconds before Air Canada’s arrival.

An unusual situation hindered the gathering of post-incident information on the incident according to a number of sources. No one apparently asked for removal of the cockpit voice recorder once the Airbus was safely parked at the gate in SFO, with confusion reported about who was responsible for that effort. It wasn’t until the day following the incident that the omission was noticed. By then, the CVR had already recorded over the section from the 28 Right incident.

An earlier FAA memo reported that near landings on the wrong runway, or on a taxiway, normally average about 24 per year. The memo said that number increased to more than 60 in 2016. * Author Note: This story includes an update that more clearly explains the time sequence during the go-around.*