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Rainy January impacts flights at SLO Airport highlighting infrastructure gaps 

January's heavy rain was a welcome sight to local farmers, climate-conscious residents, and freshwater reservoirs. But it made for a shaky month of travel at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

Commercial airlines delayed and canceled flights, offloaded passengers to reduce weight, and otherwise had schedule disruptions as a result of the stormy conditions.

click to enlarge GROUNDED A stormy January caused flight delays and cancellations at the SLO County Regional Airport, raising questions about the runway infrastructure. - FILE PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • File Photo By Kaori Funahashi
  • GROUNDED A stormy January caused flight delays and cancellations at the SLO County Regional Airport, raising questions about the runway infrastructure.

"It's been a rough week for transportation, for sure," Kevin Bumen, director of SLO County airports, said on Jan. 18 after two weeks of wet weather, both locally and across the West Coast.

The extent of the disruptions is still unknown—data for January's delays/cancellations was unavailable at press time—but anecdotal testimony shared with New Times suggested plenty of rocky experiences. SLO resident Marianne Seaborne spent the night in Phoenix on Jan. 6 after her flight home was canceled.

"I asked why, and they replied, 'Weather,'" she said.

At a time when the SLO airport is breaking passenger records (eclipsing 485,000 passengers last year, a 19 percent jump from 2017) and was recently named one of the fastest growing airports in North America, the weather cancellations raise the question: What's the issue with flying to SLO in the rain?

Out of runway

In 2007, the main runway at the airport was extended 800 feet, to a total of 6,100 feet, to better accommodate the larger regional jets that have become the norm. Yet when planes land in SLO during a rainstorm with low visibility, they essentially don't benefit from that extension.

That's because the runway's northwest end uses an instrument landing system—a navigation aid that sends signals from the ground to the plane to help with landing—that did not move with the runway extension. As a result, when planes approach, they touch down 800 feet past the start of the runway, a landing space of only 5,300 feet.

The shorter distance, with certain aircraft in poor weather conditions, can force airlines to drop weight from the plane—or cancel the flight altogether. With less than 20 commercial flights coming in and out of SLO each day, the impact is greater felt by the passenger.

"The benefit, obviously, to flying out of a larger airport is schedule recovery," Bumen said. "If something goes wrong, there are more options."

The county hasn't moved the landing system to fit the extended runway because it's an expensive and complex project. At the time the runway was worked on, the landing system didn't receive funding from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Bumen said. He added that it's the only major project that's unfinished in the 2005 airport master plan.

"It's an extremely big project, as simple as it sounds," he said. "The challenge is there's a ton of other work to do before you move that navigation aid. There's a lot of dirt that has to move. Would it help things? In my opinion, yes."

Landing in SLO from the southeast, given its unfriendly terrain, has even more limitations. That end of the runway relies on a GPS navigation system, where there are stricter visibility requirements to land.

"You need more visibility and a higher cloud ceiling [to safely land from the east]," Bumen said.

It's not only rain, cloud cover, and runway length that cause the issues. Wind is also a factor. Landing planes don't handle tailwinds well, yet the majority of gusts at the airport move west to east—the same direction of that landing approach.

"What happens from time to time is you add in a wet runway, low visibility, you're on the CRJ 900 [a larger aircraft], and the kicker is the tailwind. And you may have gone from 'we have to reduce weight' to 'we can't even do it anymore because of the wind,'" Bumen said.

SLO County has no immediate plans to complete the instrument landing system project. But it does have plans to undergo $15.1 million of maintenance on the current runway, taxiways, lighting system, and parking apron; much of which is more than 20 years old. About 90 percent of the funding for that work is expected to come from FAA grants. Bumen said the landing system project could materialize around 2023, pending funding and further analysis and discussion among airport leaders.

The SLO County Airport, at about 350 acres, is one of the 20 smallest commercial service airports in the country. Bumen said that while some would like to see more growth, like another runway extension, there are significant obstacles.

"Are there plans to expand it today? No," he said. "When you look at the [southeastern] direction, there are a lot of obstructions out there—rolling hills, trees, buildings—all on property not owned by the airport. Going the other way, similarly, you got a creek right there and quite a bit of land that starts to overlie the city in areas that were never planned, from a land-use perspective, for aviation operations."

Bumen noted that the overall statistics show the airport delivers solid performance year-round.

"On average, our scorecard sits in the middle of the pack nationally," he said. "In the months we will struggle, on a percentage basis, we'll still beat LA and San Francisco. ... We're operating very optimally, I'd say, right now." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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