San Jose Closes Up Shop on Terminal C

When I started business school in 2002, there was plenty of construction going on around San Jose Airport. Now, 8 years later, nothing has changed. There’s been virtually nonstop construction since then, but a huge milestone has been reached now that the passenger terminals are complete. That means, a little nostalgia is in order.

San Jose Terminal C

For a long time, San Jose has had Terminal A and Terminal C. There was a huge spot in the middle just waiting for a Terminal B, but it wouldn’t be built for years. Terminal A was the home of the shrinking American hub (and Reno Air before that) and growing Southwest operation. The cats and dogs were in the old Terminal C, which still boarded via air stairs.

Now that Terminal B has been finished, C is toast. Terminal A, which was woefully underbuilt for its purpose (and I mean, it was just rough), is now connected to Terminal B behind security and there’s now a cohesive airport. But not everyone is celebrating.

Personally, I love the old terminals, and C was old at about 45 years of age. Above, you can see a great shot of it from the ramp side, completely dwarfed by the massive new parking garage that was just a surface lot when I used to fly in and out. Like most old terminals, Terminal C was an absolute mess. Most of the decent food was outside security, and the security checkpoints were awkward; shoehorned into a space that was obviously never designed to handle it. But that’s part of the fun of these old buildings. They have some serious character.

Now, San Jose has a huge, bright, and airy new terminal that cost a ton of money. In fact, the cost per enplanement is expected to approach $16 by next year. That’s way too high for an airport like this, and some airlines have pulled back service knowing where these costs were going.

In fact, San Jose knows it needs to get costs down, but the aviation director doesn’t really provide any compelling ways for that to happen. It’s not easy when you have a huge amount of debt that you have to pay off. Unlike Terminal A back in the day, this has been overbuilt now. And the airport may suffer for awhile until it’s able to really pay down its debts, just like SFO did for a few years after building its massive international terminal.

But for now, let’s not worry about that and just say goodbye to Terminal C and the small piece of history that dies with it.

Happy 4th of July to all the Americans reading here. (Thanks for screwing that one up, King George III!) I’ll be back here again on Tuesday.

[Photo via Wikimedia Commons]


29 Responses to San Jose Closes Up Shop on Terminal C

  1. SirWired says:

    I fly to SJC several times a year, and I’m not the least bit nostalgic for the old terminal. For a city the size of San Jose, that airport was a disgrace.

    Terminal C was dingy and appears to have been designed before there was security at all, since some gates had NO services besides a bathroom and a couple of vending machines once you were scanned. Airstairs? To board a 757? In the 21st century?

    Terminal A went down the toilet when the hub was closed, and it was never designed for flyers originating in SJC. Luggage claim was insanse, and you just had to shake your head at the fact that sometimes security lines backed all the way into the parking garage. Routinely.

    The rental car facility was a joke, with the world’s most badly scheduled and overcrowded shuttle buses feeding an overpacked facility. (And hiring the stupidest drivers; I rode it once and the driver completely forgot to stop at the Hertz/Avis counters.) You’d wait nearly twenty minutes for a bus to show up, only to have two or three drive up in a line.

    And what took so freakin’ long to build the new terminal? RDU, my home airport, managed to demolish half of their Terminal C, build the new one, and get it fully operational in half the time. Without crushing debt. For a quarter of the cost. To build something slightly bigger than what SJC just opened. (And RDU will even have the second half open this winter) A child with an erector set could have built Terminal B faster.

    Please tell me there were huge unanticipated setbacks! Because I can’t figure out how it could have possibly taken so long and cost so much otherwise.

  2. tking18 says:

    Terminal C will be missed, not for its facilities (which were lacking), but by the fact that it was one of the 2 major airports that I know of (KOA is the other one) where PAX boarded by airstairs. It was always nice to see the size of the giant 757 or 767 that you were boarding.

    • CF says:

      You can still board via airstairs here in Long Beach (and that’s not changing, even with the new concourse) as well as at Burbank. It’s not bad when it’s in SoCal, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t want to do it elsewhere though.

  3. I love old airports. Your home airport, Cranky, LGB is one of my faves. I love the character and charm of the old main terminal and I’m kinda sad AA doesn’t fly there any more.

    SJC is a decent airport — I’ve flown through there several times. I’m sorry I never had the chance to fly through Terminal C there.

    Speaking of old airports, did you know that the old terminal for Meigs Field (CGX) in Chicago is still there? It’s part of the Chicago Parks Department now and it’s open to the public. Not much in there except a lot of ghosts and old terminal charm.

    Have a good holiday, Cranky. There’s nothing like seeing fireworks from up in the air when you’re on approach.

    =M=

    • CF says:

      I didn’t realize Daley allowed the Meigs terminal to stick around. I still cry inside every time I think about what he did to that airport. Glad I had the chance to fly in with a friend one time.

      True – fireworks from the air are great. My very first nonrev trip was from Phoenix to Orange County and back on the 4th nearly 15 years ago. That was excellent.

  4. Brian Lusk says:

    The first time I boarded a flight out of SKC was in the late 1970s, and the set up reminded my of Stillwater, Ok. In Stillwater, you checked in at the ticket counter and then went to a hold room behind the counter. That’s what we did on Continental. My own airline at the time, Delta, had ticket counter space on the curb side of the lobby like a rental car counter with no connection to the rampside. Because of that, United handled bag check and the ramp/gates. What we were told back then was that the city had a no-growth airport policy and wouldn’t expand/remodel the terminal in fear of additional airline service.

  5. Oliver says:

    Dude, the 4th of July is on Sunday, not Monday. Has Cranky Enterprises turned into such a big company that it’s workers get a comp day for the holiday falling on a weekend day? ;)

    • CF says:

      We never get a day off since Cranky Concierge is always following people, but in terms of writing, yeah, I’m following the feds. We’re having a big party at our place tomorrow, and I’ll need Sunday to recover. That means no writing until Monday.

  6. Eric says:

    I feel ya on the loss of the last ‘old skool’ terminal in the USA (SMF being a runner up). Yes…there was nothing like clearing that trainwreck called security at 0600 after a 9 hour min layover….and when they were the test location for that air poof machine body scanner on the far left side lol. Then schlepping my bags to the LAST gate at the end of the concourse to navigate red ropes to the airstairs…for my long morning climb to the door of the Bus. How there were not more ground incursions on that ramp is simply amazing…given all the cr@p parked/dumped in the AOA.

    Even with its short comings…it was a reminder of a time when airports were not malls with airplanes and the journey was part of the adventure.

  7. As a San Jose resident, I’m sooo glad to see terminal C go. It always reminded me of the old Smith terminal at DTW. I won’t miss its “character”, its poor layout, or its dirt.

  8. A says:

    Wasn’t Austin, TX able to build a brand new airport with relative ease in the mid-90’s, for a city of about the same size of San Jose?

    I too don’t understand the excessive costs and long lead times to get new terminals built. Of course there are challenges to construction on an already operating terminal, but SJC is no ORD or ATL in terms of traffic.

    • MeanMeosh says:

      Big difference at AUS, though – they “built” the new terminal out of the defunct Bergstrom Air Force Base. A lot of the infrastructure was already there, and just had to be spruced up.

    • CF says:

      Part of the problem is that cities end up wanting their airports to be beacons of light, welcoming people. So they get all wound up on making an architectural statement and the costs balloon. Functionality? Not that important unless you’re JetBlue’s T5 at JFK. The others get more caught up in prettiness. *sigh*

      • Sean S. says:

        Inefficiency in airports has everything to do with TSA. No amount of good design will get around the slow, bulky machines that TSA has for both carry on and checked baggage, and even airport terminals designed for security post 9-11 are now being thrown for a loop by the introduction of the body scanning machines, even bigger boondoggles that require not only a large amount of space for the machine itself, but a separate room or curtained off area for the operator. Short of an infinite amount of space for an ever burgeoning security gauntlet, there is no good way for airport design to be “efficient” with the security bottleneck.

      • JamesK says:

        I may be one of the only people in the world bemoaning the impending demolition of T3 at JFK (the Pan Am Worldport). It’s perfectly awful for a modern airport terminal and a striking contrast to T2, which still works reasonably well. However, that cantilevered roof is visually striking, and while the dozen-steps-from-cab-to-plane concept is dead, dead, dead, I still think it would make a decent terminal for RJs (certainly better than the horseshoe at the end of T2).

        As far as old-school terminals go, I think MEM is probably the most intact (lots of exposed brickwork and brown, brown brown), though there are retro pieces at airports around the country: IAD, LGA, MSP, IAH, JAX (disappearing bit by bit), SEA, MKE, just off the top of my head.

  9. WOW! An old terminal FULL of airline history. PSA, Air Cal, TWA (among others)…so long terminal C. Thanks for the memories! C ya.

  10. I kind of like using stairs to board/deplane, at least on nice days.

    Remember the days planes used their own build in stairs? I remember those Air California/AirCal 737’s landing and a little door would open below the main door and the stairs would slide out and drop down. Then a ramp worker would flip up the side rails and go up and open the cabin door and extend the safety rail at the top. That and PSA with it’s 727’s would drop the rear stairs for loading and unloading.

    Both those events seem to long ago, but were more fun since you got real close to the plane. And who can forget the old SNA airport where you had to walk past the first row of jets to get to the second row of jets that had to take off first in the morning before the first row of jets could move. TSA would poop their pants if all us terrorist passengers that they think we are were doing that today.

  11. I’ve passed through San Jose just once; I remember it for its bad signage.

    I found no signs indicating how to get to other terminals; I eventually learned from an idle TSA employee that one was meant to go to Ground Transportation, which labeled not only rental cars, hotel shuttles, etc., but also a poorly marked curbside spot to wait for a shuttle to the other terminal. How should pax know there’s a shuttle, or that they’re not meant to walk?

    Of course, if you arrived in terminal C it stood to reason that there were at least TWO other terminals (there was no way to know that B was still being built), but no signage indicated where the shuttle would take you, and the monitors only indicated flights departing from the terminal you were currently in — so you didn’t even know where you needed to go. Only after waiting ten minutes curbside with a bunch of other confused people did a shuttle arrive, and only on the inside did it say where it would take you and what airlines were there.

  12. SirWired says:

    I have nothing against the idea of airstairs. In a nice, small airport in some tropical location, with a long, unhurried boarding process, they’re fine. In SJC, with acres of toasty tarmac, and screaming APUs from the crowded jets, they weren’t the least bit charming.

    I’ve been in small airports with terminals that are a relic of the 50’s that I rather liked. SJC C was just old, dingy, crowded, and disorganized; not a single charming thing about it.

    And don’t get me started about the fact that the moron who designed the airport roadways made sure you had to drive right past Terminal C departure/arrivals to leave the airport. During busy times, this made a horrible traffic jam, as there was no bypass until last year.

    • Oliver says:

      Regarding the roadways, I think it wasn’t considered a major problem when we were still all using horse buggies to get to the airport.

  13. SJC was old but the experience of boarding with air stairs was awesome. Boarding from both ends cut 10mins off boarding time and it was nice to be on the tarmac and take it all in. I don’t have any of the misgivings of other commenters are I usually took mid-day or red-eye flights from SJC.

    It wasn’t designed for security but I never spent more than 5 mins there.

    I had no idea that my trip last week was going to be my last out of C.

  14. BJ says:

    It is interesting that many low cost airlines now want to board with airstairs only as it improves turn around times. They also try to get power in/power out which requires large apron real estate. Have a look at what AirAsia does at KLIA!
    My point, that I’m slowly getting around to, is that SJC seems to have missed it’s market somewhat. Build what is practical and cost effective – not some shining symbol to times of the past. Most true low cost carriers would not fly in to somewhere charging $16 a pax. Their model is built on volume – $16 straight up would really have them questioning services from SJC.

  15. Sorry Brett, but whatever charm Terminal C had it lost decades ago. Using stairs to get on a plane isn’t enough reason to keep an over the hill way past its prime terminal open.

    In the 70s, sure the SJC was a charming airport. You could walk onto the tarmac and into the control tower if you were flying out on general aviation aircraft. I did once. Hell you could even go to the south end of the airport and hang out at the old yellow terminal and have lunch or something. Plane spotters could turn the corner off Coleman onto the airport parkway and park on the dirt mound there and watch the jets fly in. Those were the days to be nostalgic over.

    But those days are thirty years ago. They walled off the old observation deck twenty or more years ago. The fenced off the old spotting grounds (which are still barren even after all the expansions and remodeling).Parking became a nightmare. They expanded the runways and demolished the old yellow building and took out all the old general aviation hangers at that end of the airport.

    And then 9/11 happened and you can’t get inside the terminal to watch the action since there are no windows to see anything unless you get past TSA so what’s the point of visiting?

    I shall not miss that Winchester Mystery House that constitutes Terminal C today. Did San Jose go overboard with Terminal B? Sure. But hindsight is 20-20 and when Terminal B was designed and building commenced the economy looked…well…a hella lot better than it does now. If the planners had known the economy would turn out this way, I’m sure they would have scaled back their ambitious plans.

    BTW, I don’t know how many people realize this but the original plans for Terminal B were to be a duplicate of Terminal A. Same design and layout. I saw the scale model 15-20 years ago and back then there was even a Terminal C that looked like Terminal A.

    Now we have a Terminal B that looks very nice and a Terminal A which doesn’t look nearly as nice.

    They opened up Terminal B to non passengers last weekend. You had to go through a full TSA security check to get through as you could waltz down to Terminal A via the International Terminal (which doesn’t match either Terminal A or B so it’s a real hodge podge architecturally speaking now). I went of course. Who wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to do something nobody else could do in a post 9/11 world: Go to a gate without a boarding pass. Well we had something that substituted for a boarding pass just to separate the travelers from the non-travelers.

    My only surprise about the new Terminal B is that it doesn’t have people movers like SFO’s long terminals do. If you come in at Terminal B at one end and have to walk all the way down to the last gate in the terminal, well…it’s a bit of a walk.

    • Bill Hough says:

      Several comments on Doug’s post:

      “They walled off the old observation deck twenty or more years ago.”

      The old deck was reduced in size by the 1969 expansion to the south, but the deck itself remained open till the end. Unfortunately, when security was consolidated a couple of years back, in late 2007 or early 2008, you had to be a ticketed pax to access it.

      “The fenced off the old spotting grounds.” True, stupid, but beside the point. You can still park in the SJSU lot and watch the planes. Unfortunately, the airport wants to redevelop that area so the days might be numbered.

      “If the planners had known the economy would turn out this way, I’m sure they would have scaled back their ambitious plans.”

      They did. in the early 2000s, they were pushing a plan that would have cost north of $4 billion, instead of the $1.3 billion they spent.

      “My only surprise about the new Terminal B is that it doesn’t have people movers like SFO’s long terminals do.”

      I think you mean “moving sidewalks” not “people movers.” And, although the walk might be a bit long if you’re using gate 17, well, most of us could use the exercise. Of course, help is available to those who truly need it.

  16. Ah SJC Terminal C. Thanks for bringing back the memories. Parking the car right in front of the terminal for a 1 1/2 minute walk to the ticket counter with a wait of what, two or three people. And up the stairs. And, on the return, picking up the luggage from that odd, off-to-the-side luggage claim area. Weird. But fun.

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