Touring San Francisco’s New Terminal 2

San Francisco opens (or shall I say, reopens) Terminal 2 with Virgin America and American as residents today. I was able to get a sneak peak last Monday and I have to say, I’m impressed. They really did this right in terms of design and, most importantly, in terms of cost.

SFO Airport Layout

This terminal was first opened in 1954 and was the main terminal for much of its life. In the 1980s, SFO made this the international terminal and it stayed that way until the new international terminal opened in 2000. The terminal sat there unused for the last decade until a renovation plan came along that culminates with today’s opening.

As you can imagine, a lot of work had to be done to get this terminal into shape to serve customers today. Since it is now primarily a domestic terminal, more gates were added to reflect smaller aircraft being used. There are now 14 gates split evenly between Virgin America and American. American is moving over from Terminal 3. Its old concourse will shut down and be renovated so that it can become a terminal for Star Alliance members next year. Virgin America is currently in the international terminal and that will just leave more space for future international flight growth.

For Virgin America, this was important because it has a ton of airplanes coming online and no place to put them in the international terminal. Now it will go from roughly 3 gates (lots of sharing in the international terminal, so it’s a rough estimate) to a whopping 7 gates on the south side of the terminal. American, however is going in the opposite direction. It is shrinking from 9 gates today down to 7 to start. The plan is to eventually only use 6 gates and there will be one common use gate.

Virgin America Ticket Counter 2

When you enter the terminal, the center is dominated by the stairs down from the AirTrain station. On the right is Virgin America’s counter and on the left is American’s. The counters have a nice look to them with wood paneling and good lighting. Both counters angle in toward the security area. One interesting thing to note is that the only retail outside security is a Starbucks. Not even a newsstand is out there, so if you’re meeting someone in the terminal, you won’t find much to keep you busy.

The security area is huge, as you’d expect. They were very smart to build it on a floating floor, so that as TSA requirements for cabling and power change (they always do), the changes can be made easily without having to drill all over the floor.

Recomposure Area

After security, you get into the recompose area where there are comfortable seating benches in an open space to get your things together. This is unlike the usual TSA benches in that they’re a) padded and b) outside the security area. Those insane jellyfish-looking things which you barely see at upper left are art, and they will actually move around in the breeze.

Admirals Club Entry 2

On the left of the recompose area is the Admiral’s Club which has double the space of the existing one and some trees. Yep, those fake trees in the middle add an interesting flair. This also has two shower rooms, something that will be huge for inbound Asian passengers connecting to American since there is no arrivals lounge for their use in the international terminal.

Entry from Security

Back in the terminal, after the recompose area, you walk into the narrow neck of the terminal which is lined with shops. (There’s a better view of the jellyfish-looking art here.) They’ve gone with local businesses, plenty of organic food, a wine bar, etc. In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect in San Francisco. Interestingly, there are no gates here. The airplanes that park along the neck can be accessed via long jet bridges from the main gate area.

Central Terminal Area

The neck opens up into a pentagon-ish shaped gate area. The large central space will have tables and chairs giving a similar airy, outdoor feel as you find JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK. They really opened this thing up to bring in a ton of light.

Water Station

My favorite feature is the refill stations on either side of the main area. There is clean drinking water fountains that are meant for you to refill your containers that you couldn’t bring through security with liquid. It’s a great touch that’s also very fitting for the eco-friendly Bay Area.

Work Area

The gate areas ring the pentagon with some shops in the middle. The seating is actually very comfortable (though the armrests prevent finding a good bed in case of a REALLY long delay). There are power outlets all over the place, including at some desk work stations that are scattered throughout the terminal. This has a very “Virgin America” feel to it, and I imagine American simply gets to benefit from it. (They came into the project later – apparently Southwest was originally supposed to go in here, but that never happened.)

Virgin America Gate Screen

The gate podiums have a very open feel to fit with the terminal, but let’s talk about the most important feature: location. This terminal sits very close to the runway 1L and has a perfect view out toward the Bay. There is probably no better place to watch airplanes than here, as long as you don’t mind looking through glass.

American Baggage Claim

Baggage claim is just a sea of carousels, undoubtedly hampered by the original building structure. It looks perfectly functional, however.

In the end, this project cost $383 million for 14 gates. That will increase cost per enplanement at the airport by $0.66 per passenger, or about 5 percent. Considering what the airport got out of this, I give them full credit for keeping costs in check. Will these gates be necessary? If Virgin America continues to operate and grow as it plans, then yes. I suppose we’ll know for sure in a few years if they were necessary or not. But for now, travelers on Virgin America and American can just enjoy what appears to be one of the most friendly and functional terminals around.

[See more photos from my tour of SFO Terminal 2, including one of the piece of art so big that they just let it stay where it was and built around it.]

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