Friday, January 29, 2016

Gridlock in the air a risk for Super Bowl fliers

Eric Hietala, regional vice president - West of Signature Flight Support, poses for a photograph at their facilities at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport in Santa Clara, California, on Monday, January 25, 2016. 



The skies over the Bay Area are about to get supercrowded come Super Bowl.

In the days leading up to and immediately following next month’s historic battle between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, our regional air space will become one big crowded dance floor like Northern California has never seen before.

Forget the gridlock at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara — the real action will be overhead, where a finely coordinated aerial shindig will feature private charter jets, Fortune 500 air limos, rock star jet-setters, news choppers, blimps and banner planes. And, oh yeah, those football fans will be joining the nearly 200,000 commercial passengers who on an average day fly into and out of the Bay Area’s three big airports.

How in the world will they fit all those planes up there?

“This is unprecedented for us,” said Rosemary Barnes, a spokeswoman for Mineta San Jose International Airport, which is expecting a big bump in commercial passenger counts around Super Bowl Sunday, at the same time its private jet traffic jumps tenfold above normal. “In terms of air traffic, this Super Bowl will be significantly larger than anything else we’ve ever seen. We’ll all notice that increase in private planes before and after the game, and when you add in media and security aircraft and helicopters, it’ll be a very busy time in Bay Area skies.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is expecting 1,200 private jets for Super Bowl Week starting this Sunday. And while you may not yet see all those planes crisscrossing overhead, plans to accommodate the coming crush are at full-throttle right now all over the region.

At Livermore Municipal Airport, where they’re expecting at least 80 corporate and private jets in a record-crushing spectacle, construction crews are still paving and putting on the finishing touches to a new hangar complex. Palo Alto Airport’s manager, Andy Swanson, is bracing for a daily onslaught of small air-charter taxis that will be dropping off and picking up passengers coming into Silicon Valley from outlying airports as far away as Monterey and Stockton. Crews at Sterling Aviation at Contra Costa’s Buchanan Field Airport, says Chris Hansen, are prepping to pump as much as 10,000 gallons of fuel a single day, about the amount they’d go through in a month.

And APP Jet Center’s Tom Panico at Hayward Executive Airport is bringing in people from as far as Florida to beef up ground crews for round-the-clock staffing, poring over a software program to figure out where to park all those extra jets, and doubling his fuel capacity by adding two more trucks, with a third on standby.

“We’ve normally got 391 aircraft based at our field, and we’re expecting an additional 120 to arrive for Super Bowl,” said Panico, adding that most will fly in Thursday through Saturday before the Feb. 7 game, and “then everybody will try and depart Sunday evening the minute the game is over.”

By going onto a 24-hour operation schedule from Thursday to Tuesday night, Panico said the goal is “to make sure all the aircraft can get out of here safely.”

Panico and his regional colleagues praise the FAA for setting up an elaborate ramp reservation system, requiring private and corporate jets to secure a spot for landing and takeoff at one of the region’s 16 airports. The same goes for pilots who want to “drop and go,” leaving their passengers at Point X and then cooling their jets, literally, at Point Y.

This system, they say, will ensure that regular commercial flights maintain priority passage through the air space while controllers schedule private jets to land in between those flights, based on their ramp reservations. And while commercial flights aren’t expecting any delays because of Super Bowl traffic, officials still say passengers should arrive at the airport three hours early, just in case.

The FAA used the reservation system “for the first time at last year’s Super Bowl because of congestion problems at previous games,” said Keith Freitas, director of airports for Contra Costa County, which operates Byron and Buchanan fields. With that county alone expecting 10 times as many Super Bowl jets as the traffic they see on an average day, Freitas says the nature of this year’s game makes a reservation system even more crucial.

“The aircraft coming into the Bay Area for this Super Bowl is even a bigger number because it’s the 50th,” he said. “Add in the fact that the San Francisco Bay Area is already a tourist draw in itself, and that the PGA Pro-Am at Pebble Beach takes place the following weekend, and you have plenty of reasons why we’re expecting the largest draw in NFL history.”

In the days before and after the game, veteran sky-watchers will feel like kids in an airport gift shop. For starters, Livermore Airport Manager Leander Hauri says he’s got reservations from three different blimps, including MetLife’s Snoopy One and Snoopy Two, as well as banner-tow planes that routinely use the Tri-Valley facility.

There will be TV news helicopters buzzing around all week and, says AvPORTS’ Carl Honaker at Moffett Federal Airfield, “we’ll be busy because there’ll be some military aircraft here for law-enforcement support during the Super Bowl.”

Throw in all the private Gulfstreams, Learjets, Global jets and Cessna Citations and you’ve got a mess of low-altitude elbow-rubbing right over our heads. Alex Wilcox, co-founder and CEO of the private jet charter company JetSuite, says that while normally they do 15 daily flights into the Bay Area, Super Bowl means five times that many, most of them into San Jose.

Finally, after Super Bowl 50’s final play is over, the Bay Area’s skies will flicker again with air traffic, this time with thousands of flying fans all trying simultaneously to get the hell out of town. Things can get dicey, says Mineta San Jose’s Barnes.

“They’ll all trickle in the days before the game, but they’ll all want to leave town right after it’s over,” she said.” So you’ll have a pilot with clients on board saying, ‘We’ve got to go now!’ But we have to tell them they can’t go until their reservation takes effect, and that can make things difficult for the pilot and his clients.”

While Livermore’s Hauri is thrilled to have his airport be part of this giant game of aerial musical chairs, he’s focused on something else these days: “I’m looking forward to the 8th and 9th of February,” he said of the main days of departure. “Handling all these Super Bowl flights is exciting, but it’s also exhausting.”

Story and photo: http://www.montereyherald.com

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