Issue 9.6: December/January 2007

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.


 

 

Terminal 2, capped by the control tower, is the oldest of the three and centerpiece of the original airport. Beginning in 1983, the ten gates in Terminal 2’s Boarding Area D handled all international flights. But serious overcrowding and heady predictions of fifty-one million passengers by the year 2006 (the airport handled thirty-one million passengers in 1990) prompted the San Francisco Airport Commission, an agency of the City and County of San Francisco, to embark on a new master plan in 1989. Cost: $2.4 billion for a new international terminal, the AirTrain people mover, a new BART station, three parking structures and a new car rental center, located off site and reachable by AirTrain.

With the opening of the new International Terminal in 2001, Terminal 2 was shut down. Now it functions as a cavernous, empty passageway between bustling Terminals 1 and 3 while it awaits its own renewed influx of passengers.

It might be a while.

At a time when new airports are measuring their surface areas in square miles, SFO has a relatively tiny, 2,400-acre patch of land to work with, hemmed in by the freeway, wetlands and the bay itself. As a result, it has one of most compact passenger terminal complexes, virtually all under a single roof, of any major airport in the world. The tight quarters have forced the airport to innovate in radical ways. The 2.5-million-square-foot, twenty-four- gate International Terminal, for instance, was shoehorned in on top of the existing airport, straddling the approach and enclosing the whole complex behind its façade.

“We doubled the size of the airport without extending the boundaries of the property,” says Ivar Satero, an SFO planner. “We built a new airport on top of the existing airport. You can’t get any more compact—this is about as built-out as an airport gets.”

One observer called the newly constituted airport a Rubik’s Cube. I ask the fortyish planner, trained as a mechanical engineer, if the build-out of the current master plan helped or hurt the airport’s transparency, its ease of navigation.

“You know, it’s an interesting question,” Satero says. “SFO always worked well, but I think people had the expectation that when the airport doubled in size, it was going to be hell to get around. It hasn’t been. The design hasn’t been flawless, but certainly it’s a rigorous design that helps people.”

Indeed. In the airport’s own 2005 survey of travelers’ impressions, “ease of finding way around” got the highest rating, 4.5, on a scale of one to five out of the twenty-four categories surveyed. The airport’s overall rating was 4.0.

“I think we have some the best signage I’ve seen anywhere,” says Henry Thompson, an operations man. “Everything has to meet our standards, from the look and feel of the sign, the font, the size of letters, the color. All that has to be factored into the design phase to make sure that we get a sign that’s going to be visible to everyone. We actually have a signage manual this thick.” He holds his two index fingers six inches apart.

The Mississippi native leads me from SFO’s posh suite of management offices, down an elevator and out onto the sleek north corridor, alongside the main hall of the International Terminal. The overwhelming space of the Main Hall measures 700 feet long, 200 feet wide and 83 feet high. The translucent glass walls and gaping skylights bathe the room in glowing midday light. Crosscut by six banks of check-in counters, the room feels at once busy and hushed, like a transparent version of the Main Concourse at New York’s Grand Central train station.

As we stride along the corridor, Thompson counts the different hierarchies of signage overhead, spreading his arms wide at what he calls the “decision points,” the big, three-dimensional intersections where escalators and secondary hallways channel passengers to security check- points, or BART and AirTrain upstairs, or arrivals downstairs, or the domestic terminals or the parking garages.

“The airport itself is a completely signed system,” Thompson says as we walk by the wide entrance to Boarding Area G and its flanking CNBC newsstands. His voice deepens into a lecture-like authority. He’s excited that someone else thinks signage is fascinating.


 

 

“It starts on the freeway a mile out, where signs divide vehicles into domestic-bound and international-bound. Then there are parking options, then there are other decision points, arrivals and departures, then terminals and airlines. Once in the terminal, the signage picks up again. Not just wayfinding signs, but maps, directories, information booths.”
Two rows of glass cases in the middle of the spacious corridor divert my attention. A glittering treasury of silver objects: medieval tankards, Art Deco tea sets, neoclassical candlesticks, Arts and Crafts vases, and hammered modernist bowls. A placard says the temporary exhibit, Five Centuries of Swedish Silver, was organized by the San Francisco Airport Museums with pieces on loan from the Rohsska Museum of Design and Applied Arts in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Thompson stops to examine a standardized, hyacinth-blue and sage-green concession directory, this one mounted high on a column. “Here’s an example of bad placement—no one looks up that high to figure out where to eat,” he grumbles. “We’re in the process of adjustment.”

He tells me that “huge gaps” in the original signage program for the International Terminal, subcontracted by the architect, caused SFO to spend another million dollars to get it right. The airport produces a dozen different terminal maps, from color-coded diagrams of the entire complex to detailed guides to individual concourses. There’s even a little brochure that maps out smoking areas. Recently, when Frontier Airlines suddenly changed its gates, Thompson says he had to oversee the application of correction stickers to 200 freshly printed and installed map panels around the airport.

As we wander into the hurly-burly of check-in at domestic Terminal 3, I ask Thompson how much control SFO has over the chaos; that is, over its fifty-five tenant airlines.

“Quite a bit,” he answers, “with our lease agreements, operating agreements and directives.” For example, he mentions a directive that check-in counters must have stanchions in place to manage customer lines, and that they cannot extend out more than twelve feet into the traffic areas.

“We do a fairly good job of monitoring it, too,” Thompson says, “because again, we’re focused on the customer experience. When a passenger comes through here and there’s congestion … well, that’s just the beginning of a bad travel experience. For a lot of people, SFO is the first and last thing they experience of San Francisco, so we’re focused on making that experience a positive one.”

Security screener Ed Lautoa echoes Thompson’s customer-service mantra when he says his second priority, after security, is “getting the line through.” He generally rates SFO as “one of the best airports anywhere.

“Not because I’m bragging,” he says, smiling, “but because I travel myself to other cities and, from what I see, we’re more professional in many, many aspects of the business.” He proudly mentions the fact that SFO was the first airport in the nation to integrate in-line baggage screening into its baggage-handling system. In the post-9/11 era, the system has been a model for other airports.


 

 
Ed Lautoa

Lautoa was born in Samoa and went to high school in Honolulu. He has been on the Mainland for thirty years, raising his family. I meet up with him in Terminal 1, where he’s doing his ten-hour shift with fourteen other screeners. No lines. The big, friendly man in his Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) uniform—white shirt, clip-on tie, navy pants and black shoes—offers to buy me a cup of coffee at a nearby food court.

Lautoa estimates he puts in about eighty hours a week working at SFO, where he’s been employed since 1991. He’s a Skycap for United Airlines; a VIP handler for Golden Gate Services, shepherding the likes of Sharon Stone, Joe Montana and Robert Redford through the indignities of check-in and baggage claim; and, for forty hours a week, he’s an SFO security screener.

At each checkpoint, Lautoa explains, anywhere from seven to fifteen screeners rotate every half-hour among five positions. There’s the “loader,” who coaxes passengers out of their belts and shoes, and shuttles the plastic bins into the X-ray machine; the “X-ray person,” who monitors the screen; the “mag operator,” who directs passengers through the door-frame magnetic detector; and the “wander,” who sweeps individual passengers with metal-detecting wands after they have double-beeped the mag. Lastly, there’s the “ETP person,” who runs the Explosive Trace Portal (a.k.a. the “puffer machine”).

A week earlier, Lautoa and the SFO security apparatus had weathered a worldwide airport-security scare provoked by the discovery of the now-infamous liquid-explosives plot in Great Britain.

“The news happened on a Wednesday,” Lautoa remembers. “By Friday the lines at check-in were overwhelming. Security lines doubled. We couldn’t take any time off until further notice. We had to work around the clock to make sure that our airport was safe.”


 

 

How did passengers take the delays?

“They cooperated more than we expected them to,” he says. “I think it helped that we had two ‘queue masters’ out in front of the lines at all times explaining to passengers what we were looking for and helping them dispose of prohibited items before they went through. Otherwise, nobody’s going anywhere.

“I mean, we were on high alert. We’re here to do our job so you’ll be safe. Foremost, we’re here to protect you. Security first.”

He says some passengers complained that SFO caught items that had cleared other airports. “They’d say, ‘Seattle or Los Angeles didn’t take it out, so why are you?’ So I’d say, ‘Sorry, ma’am, but they probably didn’t see it.’

“See, the fact is, we’re very good. SFO’s one of the best for security. We catch a lot of stuff other places miss.”

For all its grandeur, SFO has some problems—most glaringly, a lack of room on the runways, which wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for San Francisco’s seasonal fog. The runway layout is more than fifty years old, and the two sets of parallel runways are too close together, according to FAA rules, to permit simultaneous instrument landings by two aircraft when the fog layer limits visibility. This can cause a forty-percent reduction in arrival capacity—and because fog in San Francisco typically occurs in the mornings, these delays can ripple through airline schedules throughout the day and across the nation.

Building new runways on landfill in San Francisco Bay is a costly proposition, and environmental concerns about dredging and filling the fragile bay are difficult to allay. As a result, SFO’s billion-dollar runway development program is currently on hold.

The other problem was the post-9/11 plunge in air traffic worldwide, which came right on the heels of the millen-nial dot-com implosion. In 2000, just as SFO was preparing to open its new terminal, the airport was processing a record forty-one million passengers annually and ranked as the ninth busiest in the world. Three years later the passenger numbers had plunged twenty-nine percent, to twenty-nine million, and the airport’s ranking was down to number twenty-one. By 2005 the numbers had begun climbing upward again, to 33.4 million, but the airport is still in an uphill struggle to reach optimal passenger and financial numbers—according to Mike McCarron, each daily 747 flight into SFO represents $1.8 million in annual revenues.

McCarron reports there are new carriers looking at SFO’s gates, including Virgin America, a new start-up and spin-off of mogul Richard Branson’s flashy, London-based Virgin Atlantic airline. Late last year, Virgin America announced plans to set up headquarters—3,000 employees and a fleet of thirty-five jets—at SFO, as soon as it wins certification from the federal government. Asked why ’Frisco, Virgin America CEO Fred Reid told the San Francisco Chronicle that he found it “shocking” that the San Francisco Bay Area, with its vibrancy and its high level of “local-originating revenue,” didn’t have a hometown carrier.

“As far as we know, they’re on track,” McCarron says about Virgin’s plans to set up shop at SFO. “We’re hopeful they’ll start service next spring.”

In 1999, SFO’s long-running program of cultural exhibits won unprecedented accreditation by the American Association of Museums. Now called the San Francisco Airport Museums, the program lines up a non-stop—and uniquely oddball—series of rotating shows.

Currently, the twenty exhibits arrayed in SFO’s corridors include that treasure trove of Swedish silver; a show of tiki-themed ephemera; a collection of colorful Wurlitzer jukeboxes; a display of Balinese theater puppets; photographs of San Francisco’s late, great Fox Theater; and a delightfully nostalgic exhibit in Terminal 1 called “Dining Aloft,” with its cases chock-full of tray-bound place settings, variously logo’ed and from different eras, that recall Chicken Kiev at 35,000 feet. In the recent past, the museums’ team of curators pulled together exhibits of Barbie dolls, African shields, skateboards, multicultural bridal gowns, kitchenware and a survey history of eyeglasses (the first were Phoenician), as well as numerous shows covering all aspects of aviation history and design. Perhaps more than anything else, it is these divertissements that make SFO a memorable crossroads.


 

 

I meet John Hill, one of the Airport Museums’ curators, in the impressive Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum and Library, located off the south corridor of the International Terminal. I am curious how the exhibits work in an airport and how they might reflect the cultural percolation going on in the city at large.

“Well, I think the museums’ program reflects the whole Bay Area,” Hill says. “There’s a cultural timber here that makes what we do at the airport a natural. I think this region has a legitimate claim to being a sort of future-looking, enlightened place on a lot of levels, so, yes, it’s a good mirror to hold up and say, ‘Yeah, this is who we are.’ But it also says to the visitor, ‘Yeah, this is who you are.’”

As Hill is talking, it occurs to me that what makes this airport so easy and so spectacular is the creative pride and passion of the people who work here—all of them, it seems, from architects to security screeners. SFO has become its own destination, a superbly reflective and expressive place of transit.

“I like to think we’re a phenomenologically based program,” Hill says brightly, pausing and smiling at his big word. “We’re not really a destination museum, but facilitators of a very simple equation—these objects are here and these people are here. Everything reflects outward and inward. The experience happens spontaneously and on a pretty big scale. We don’t really know what its ripple effects are, but I think they’re profound.” HH