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.