SAN FRANCISCO - San Francisco International Airport on Thursday stepped up its pressure on airlines to relieve congestion at the often-fogbound airport by using bigger planes and making fewer flights.
If the airlines don't comply, Airport Director John Martin plans to ask the Federal Aviation Administration for the right to order them to do so.
Airline industry officials call such an order illegal, misguided and ''a very bad idea.''
Besides consolidating shuttle service, the airport wants airlines to give customers more accurate and timely information about cancellations and delays and to increase turnaround time on loops to Los Angeles so that a single delay doesn't have a domino effect and cause delays for the rest of the day.
In a move closely watched by the nation's airports, the delay-plagued airport released a study Thursday it says justifies its plan, which would be in effect only until the airport's runways are reconfigured, a process expected to take seven years.
''The bottom line is customer service,'' said airport spokesman Ron Wilson, adding that the airport rivals New Jersey's Newark International Airport for the nation's most flight delays.
And it is the small planes that are tying up runways, Wilson said. Turboprops carrying 30 people or fewer account for 18 percent of the airport's 1,250 daily flights but just 3 percent of its daily passengers, he said.
Perpetual bad weather conditions exacerbate the problem.
According to the study, delays typically average an hour or more when coastal fog or rain forces the airport to close two of its four runways. This happens a quarter of the time in a typical year, the study said.
Fog or even a few strategically placed clouds are enough to do it, forcing planes to fly single-file, cutting arrivals in half, from 60 to 30 per hour, Wilson said.
''We are not serving our customers. The airlines are not serving our customers adequately,'' Wilson said.
Airport officials expect to complete the studies necessary to file an FAA petition by July. If the FAA grants the rule change, San Francisco would become the nation's first airport to regulate airline operations, Wilson said.
The FAA doesn't have the authority to grant the request, said David A. Fuscus, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group representing the nation's major airlines.
''They can go to the FAA and ask for approval but there's no way for the FAA to give it because it violates federal law. The only organization that can give that is the U.S. Congress.''
FAA spokesman Paul Turk said he couldn't say if the FAA has the authority. ''But we are preparing a response that will go to SFO very shortly.''
The Regional Airline Association, which represents smaller commuter carriers, also criticizes the plan.
''We don't feel that this is an appropriate role for an airport,'' spokeswoman Deborah McElroy said. ''Their proposal could disenfranchise many small communities who depend on regional airlines for their access to San Francisco'' and the rest of the nation's airports.
Business customers want frequent flights, said McElroy, who worries that service to some cities could end altogether if airlines decide it's not economical to send big planes there.
Airport officials want to require airlines to replace some turboprop and 737 service with larger planes. They're targeting regional airports that offer one or more round trips to San Francisco per hour by a single carrier.
Affected cities served by the turboprops include Fresno, Eureka, Monterey and Sacramento. Los Angeles is the only affected city served by 737s - narrow body, single-aisle planes that carry 130 passengers.
United Airlines and United Express are the only airlines providing the service.
''We think the plan is very, very misguided,'' United spokesman Matthew Triaca said. The airline has taken a number of steps to help the airport reduce delays, including decreasing the number of flights in and out of San Francisco by 12 percent since 1998, Triaca said, and demand doesn't exist for larger-plane service to Fresno, Eureka, Monterey and Sacramento.
United Express doesn't even have the bigger planes the airport is suggesting it use, said Steven Hart, spokesman for Sky West Airlines, which operates United Express. And, he said, ''I assume the San Francisco airport would pay for those (turboprops) to sit on the ground if that's ultimately what would come about.''
Fuscus of the Air Transport Association expects the FAA to reject the airport's plan.
''It's against the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and it is a very bad idea for any type of government authority or an airport authority to get involved in the free market, and that's exactly what's happening here,'' he said.