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.