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What's wrong with the new international terminal at SFO?

by Edward Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad”

(Written as an op-ed column for the San Francisco Chronicle, December 2000.)

In December 2000 international flights to and from my home airport, San Francisco International Airport (SFO), were switched to a just-opened, much-hyped new international terminal that’s the showpiece of an ongoing multi-billion (US) dollar airport expansion and construction project.

Airport users are concerned primarily with how far we have to walk, how long we have to wait in lines, how comfortable the waiting areas are, and how easy it is to find our way — not with the esthetics of airports as civic symbols. I make my living advising international travellers on how to cope with practicalities like airports. So I attended the advance press reception and tour at the new international terminal at San Francisco International Airport with an eye for how it will work, more than how it looks. The verdict: grand in appearance, but flawed in functionality.

What’s wrong with the new international terminal at SFO?

  1. English-only signs

    The international terminal at SFO should be a model of multi-culturalism. The most important signs at SFO, if they are in words rather than primarily in pictographs, should be in Spanish and Chinese as well as English. There should be supplemental guides to airport facilities at each entrance (from the parking garage, from the BART station, etc.) in those languages plus Japanese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Russian, French, German, and Korean .

    Truly international airports, though, rarely rely on words for directional signs: their primary signage is in picture. Standard icons for baggage claim, rail transport, food, etc. are recognized by air travellers around the world. The pictographs at the new terminal at SFO are small and inconspicuous — an afterthought to the words in English. Words and icons alike are in muted tones of gray and black that blend into the similarly-colored ceilings.

    But signs in airports aren’t supposed to be discrete: Their purpose is to stand out from everything else (including the advertisements and artwork), grab the attention of dazed and jet-lagged strangers, and give us clear, simple, guidance as to which way to go for basic services. Usability calls for attention-getting high-contrast color schemes like those on highway safety signs.

    Those of us who recognize cultural diversity as one of the best things about the Bay Area should be embarrassed. The designers of the signs should be ashamed of their provincialism — and should start immediately on a drastic upgrade of pictographic and multi-lingual signage.

  2. Lack of facilities for travellers’ friends and families

    The new terminal’s planners seem to have assumed that arriving passengers, once through customs and immigration, would immediately walk out the doors to a train, bus, or car. True enough for most tourists, business travellers, and vacationers, but not for those traveling to visit friends or family.

    The most overcrowded area in the old international terminal at SFO is the area where friends and family wait — often for several hours, in large groups and extended families that include the elderly and infirm — for arriving international passengers. Yet this is the area that is least improved, if at all, in the new terminal.

    The “meet and greet” area is designed as an entryway rather than a waiting hall. There’s no more seating than at the old terminal, no food anywhere in the area, and even the water fountains and restrooms are at the furthest ends of the room. There’s a lot of space, but most of it won’t be useful: to see when our loved ones arrive, we’ll have to crowd around the short corridors between the customs and immigration exits and the doors to the outside.

    Bay Area immigrant communities — whose visits to and from friends and families abroad are the real bulwark of international traffic at SFO, and who are the ones who spend the most time at the international terminal — should be outraged that their needs were so clearly ignored, and should demand increased seating and amenities in the waiting area.

  3. Lack of preparation for runway expansion

    Runways, not terminals, are the limiting factor in how many flights SFO can handle. Unfortunately, the airport construction in progress includes no provision for transport connections to the available additional runways.

    Mayor Brown used the new terminal’s grand opening party this week to lobby for construction of new runways in the Bay off SFO. This is the underlying premise of the whole construction program.

    But any proposal to pave the Bay will run into a brick wall of environmental opposition. Only His Williness and the S.F. Airport Commission could imagine it politically feasible to landfill several square miles of Bay wetlands for runways — while suitable runways are being abandoned at the former Alameda Naval Air Station and under-utilized at Oakland Airport.

    The more time wasted on pipe dreams of new runways in the Bay, the longer a real solution will be delayed. The key to resolving the runway crisis is starting work as soon as possible on realistic plans to optimize use of the East Bay runways, as part of an integrated regional airport linked by ferries or a new tunnel.

    The problem with the new terminal, intra-airport rail system, and BART spur is that none provides or leaves a clear right-of-way for a trans-Bay shuttle connection to additional runways. The “people mover” won’t go to the Bay, much less to a suitable ferry terminal site. And the new terminal blocks the path that would be followed by an extension of either rail system to a new trans-Bay tunnel.

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