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Most of Molokai‘i's prime ‘opihi grounds are only accessible by boat. Jordan Spencer, just offshore of Wailau Valley, September 2006
Vol. 9, No. 6
December/January 2007

  >>   Hearts of Palm
  >>   On the Rocks
  >>   Top Flight

Top Flight 

story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Dana Edmunds


The first time I sped off the freeway and into the gigantic forecourt of San Francisco’s newly expanded airport five years ago, I was awestruck by the spectacle. And I still am: The vast embrace of glass and concrete, the sinuous complexity of the feeder roadways, the sensational motion and flow—it’s a futurist vision expressing the right-now circuitry of travel, where the freeway meets the sky. ,Picture it: More than a dozen concrete-ribbon skyways swoop and careen into the aerodrome, fed by a stream of cars coming off the 101 Freeway, a scant 300 yards to the west. San Jose and Silicon Valley are thirty miles south; downtown San Francisco’s ten miles north.

The skyways guide the traffic into and out of the airport’s great gaping maw of an entrance. Two sets of shuttle-train tracks, held aloft on thin pylons, circle around the airport’s five terminal stops and the new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station, then veer away north to the remote rental car center. The flying roadways land and peel off into the twin, nine-level parking wings that frame the space, or snake into international arrivals and departures or, bound for the domestic terminals and parking beyond the forecourt, tunnel into the shadows beneath the gargantuan span of the billion-dollar International Terminal, with its graceful bird-winged roof and foggy glass facade. Etched into the 700-foot-long glazing, front and center, in big block letters: “S-A-N-F-R-A-N-C-I-S-C-O I-N-T-E-R-N-A-T-I-O-N-A-L.”

Living in San Francisco for a dozen years, I had grown to love returning home after traveling elsewhere, in part because SFO (as the airport’s generally referred to, like JFK or LAX) always felt humane and efficient, so compact and comprehensible, so easy. But now, with its eye-popping transformation, SFO’s spectacular, too. Cutting edge. Dynamic. Big. World class, as they say. A grand, space-age lobby for the high-tech capital of the world. Last May, the 2006 World Airport Awards—which are based on an independent survey of more than seven
million travelers worldwide—named SFO the Best Airport in North America. It was just the latest in a string of recent accolades.

What is it about an airport that inspires such flights of description—and such love? How do engineers, architects, baggage handlers, airline and security personnel conspire to make it all happen? Can an airport, buffeted by recessions and faraway disasters, by the whims of airlines and the dictates of the Department of Homeland Security, truly reflect the city and region it serves? And, perhaps most important to the thirty-three million-plus travelers who pass through SFO each year, is the airport finally complete?

“I don’t think any airport is ever finished,” SFO spokesperson Mike McCarron quickly answers when I put this last question to him. “It’s kind of like Disneyland: There’s always something to do tomorrow.

“But it’s probably true that we’re more or less finished for now,” he says. “Eventually, we’d like to remodel Terminals 1 and 2. We’ve got plans on the drawing board, just waiting for the command.”

Terminals 1, 2 and 3 make up the familiar, old, easy-to-read SFO, dating to 1954. The compact ring of terminals, obscured now behind the bulk of the new International Terminal, handles all of the airport’s domestic flights at its seventy-six gates. The radial design has been key to SFO’s sense of flowing efficiency and fast in-and-out. Aided by the airport’s meticulous signage, transfer between air and ground has always been a more-or-less straight shot along clean, plush hallways and trusty escalators from check-in to security to the gates, and from the gates to baggage claim to ground transportation and parking.