Frequent SFO Go-Arounds Point to Safety Concerns

A rising number of aborted landings, called “go-arounds” by the industry, has some aviation safety experts raising questions about whether the data point to potential safety issues

Pilots are performing “go-arounds” at increasing rates at San Francisco International Airport according to figures obtained by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit.

A “go-around”, or rejected landing, is a maneuver performed by pilots upon approach, when the conditions are unsuitable or unsafe to land.

For a passenger, it can be unnerving, but for pilots, it can be their best safety tool.

According to aviation safety experts, a pilot will execute this procedure by pulling up, and going around the airport, in order to make a second attempt at landing. A “go-around” can also be called a “missed approach” by aviation industry insiders (technically, all “missed approaches” are ‘go-arounds’ but not all ‘go-arounds’ are “missed approaches”).

We analyzed nearly five years of FAA data tracking “go-arounds” at San Francisco International Airport, where the maneuver is almost a daily occurrence.

While a successful individual “go-around” isn’t always a concern, aviation experts tell NBC Bay Area that the data reveals that taken together the numbers point to several trends and raise safety issues that warrant closer examination by the FAA and SFO itself.

From 2009 through May, 2012, NBC Bay Area found a rise in the number of go-arounds, year over year.

NBC Bay Area also took the raw number of ‘go-arounds’ and adjusted for the number of final approaches, breaking down the numbers and rates for individual airlines.

Those figures showed that foreign pilots performed “go-arounds” at a higher rate than domestic pilots.

Foreign pilots performed  one “go-around” for every 76.17 attempted landings in the first seven months of 2013. Domestic pilots performed one “go-around” for every 351.1 landings.

For foreign pilots that’s a rate 4.61 times higher than for domestic pilots.

Officials at SFO declined to speak with NBC Bay Area for this report, referring us to the FAA who provided a statement saying:

“Go-arounds are important safety tools for both pilots and air traffic controllers. They are routine, standardized procedures, and can occur once a day or more at busy airports for various reasons. Aircraft performing go-arounds follow specific, prescribed paths while controllers sequence them back into the airport's arrival stream."

But commercial pilot Doug Rice told NBC Bay Area that higher ‘go-around’ rate is “clearly an indicator of pilot level of experience.”

Rice has flown as a captain for a domestic air carrier for 30 years, and has performed “go-arounds” at SFO. He stressed the amount of skill that’s required to safely land an airplane.

“We (commercial pilots) rely so much on the automation,” he said, “that we don’t step back and remember that we have to fly the airplane first and worry about the automation later.”

In June, 2012, the FAA revised their reporting criteria for go-arounds, requiring planes to be much closer to the airport before a go-around is officially reported. The change resulted in a significant decrease in go-arounds through 2013.

We spoke with several local flight instructors who acknowledge the importance of “go-arounds” and told us that they teach their students how to successfully execute a “go-around,” before they teach them how to land.

“Students are taught that the ‘go-around’ is almost the default position and that the landing is the reward for being in the right place,” certified flight instructor Aaron Kahn told NBC Bay Area. He demonstrated this technique in his simulator at Advanced Flyers in Palo Alto.

Flight instructors agreed that go-arounds are an essential safety tool.

However, safety advocates warned that examining the cause of these go-rounds could illuminate safety concerns.

Nearly a third of all “go- arounds” at SFO dated back to 2009 cited interference by other planes, or traffic on the runway as a factor.

Former FAA Manager Gabe Bruno told us that this is of particular concern at SFO because of its four runways are uniquely configured such that two parallel runways intercept two other parallel runways.

“By looking at the data,” Bruno said, “if there seems to be an inordinate number of ‘go-arounds’ on a particular runway, that might be something air traffic control folks might want to look at.”

In fact, the FAA’s data for 2012 shows that in “go-arounds” where a cause was listed 20% were caused by planes crossing in front of oncoming planes. That percentage slightly increased to nearly 25% (24.71%) during the first half of 2013.

Bruno believes that this data deserves a closer look by aviation officials in order to make any changes that might be necessary to maintain safety at SFO.

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