New procedures for SFO following AC759 incident

Planes arriving at San Francisco International Airport after dark will soon face new requirements, especially when one runway is closed. The FAA issued revised policies following the Air Canada A320 incident last month where the inbound plane passed over an active taxiway rather than the runway, coming scarily close to a tragedy.

Details from the FAA on the AC759 incident, including positional data and time stamps.
Details from the FAA on the AC759 incident, including positional data and time stamps.

The new rules require that aircraft landing at night while one runway is closed use instrument landing systems or satellite-based approach guidance rather than visual approach, the scenario governing the AC 759 flight. Adding the systems-based guidance into the approach will reduce chances of an inbound aircraft lining up wrong when one runway is closed and dark.

The rules also change the staffing at the ATC tower, requiring a second controller in the tower “until the late-night arrival rush is over” according to a statement shared by FlightGlobal. At the time of the incident only one controller was on duty and, based on the transcripts of the communications, it appears that a couple opportunities to notice the mis-aligned approach were missed.

NTSB releases initial details on AC759 SFO incident

As ACA759 approached SFO, at 2355:52 PDT, the airplane flew too far right of course to be observed by the local controller’s ASDE-X/ASSC and was not visible on the ASDE-X/ASSC display for about 12 seconds.

At 2355:56 PDT, when ACA759 was about 0.3 mile from the landing threshold, the local controller confirmed and recleared ACA759 to land on runway 28R.

As I mentioned when previously writing about the incident, the controller did not have the plane visible on the surface radar screen and still cleared the landing, even after the pilot expressed some concern. This appears an unusual set of circumstances and the FAA responded nearly immediately to address potential workload challenges that may have contributed to that aspect of the circumstances.

Ultimately aviation remains incredibly safe because so many different parties are all participating in the process and working towards that goal. When mistakes are made or flaws identified changes are implemented to prevent them from repeating. To me this is a great example of recognizing a problem and quickly making multiple adjustments to reduce the chances of a repeat performance.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I know very little about aviation from the flight ops side, so forgive me for any cluelessness, but that said, it seems strange to me that at a major international airport like SFO that there would be only one controller on duty at any time, day or night. What would happen if tragedy struck and that person had to deal with a flight in distress or even if they had a heart attack? Just seemed kind of curious to me.

    1. Dealing with a flight in distress is relatively easy in that the rest of the planes in the area are pushed off elsewhere or hold. Flights en route are handled by the controllers at the TRACON centers so at any given point in time there aren’t a massive number of planes handled by the local tower anyways. You need more coverage for increased workload but not necessarily redundancy. And emergency situations are dealt with as emergencies. Planes divert if needed.

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