“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.