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.]


39 Responses to Touring San Francisco’s New Terminal 2

  1. Couple of comments.

    I get the impression from looking at the height of the water bottle spouts and the associated instructions that you’re supposed to put the tube inside your bottle? Umm if thats the case its a hygienic mess.

    I’m a little unclear as to how many planes they can put on the “neck” of the terminal. Is it one on each side? Or are they wedging more in there?

    So JetBlue isn’t moving over from the international terminal? I wonder how they’re feeling with their new upstart competitor getting a new terminal, and they’re stuck in the common use gates at the Intl terminal..

    It looks like they’ve put in lots of nice little “thoughtful” features. I wonder if they pulled anyone in from Ikea to go designing it…

    Oh, and on the Test Arrival Board, Sabre Field.. nice.. I wonder if I can land some email there…

    • CF says:

      I think that might just be the angle of the pic. I didn’t have a water bottle with me, so I don’t know if you have to put the tube into your bottle but there should be plenty of room.

      I believe it’s just one on each side. For sure it’s only one on the north side, gate 59. That’s the one that has a long jetbridge walk and will become common use. It’s the least desirable gate for boarding, but when you get off, there’s a door that dumps you out close to the exit.

      I doubt JetBlue cares about this. The international terminal is a very nice place, and now there’s even more room for them over there.

      I thought Sabre Field was pretty funny considering how the two hate each other these days.

      • Oh wow, it never even dawned on my that Sabre Field was an AA flight. ::facepalm::

        It’s also gotta be an interesting relationship between AA and Sabre right now since Sabre hosts AA’s system does it not?

        • CF says:

          Well, sort of. AA is on Sabre, and that’s why this is showing as Sabre Field. But I believe that part is being run by HP/EDS now. I could be wrong on that – the relationships get murky.

          • Jeremy says:

            I got to fly on the DC3 Flagship Detroit during the Terminal Opening. I had to get an AA boarding pass to get through security. The boarding pass states From SABRE FIELD SVC to HEADQUARTERS….

            ….Just saying….

  2. SEAN says:

    I assume those are gates 50-59 plus extention letters?

    Brett, Is SFO going to be remoddling terminals 1 & 3 anytime soon?

    • Yes about the gate numbers. Now that American has moved out of T3, Boarding Area E will likely be updated a bit, and Terminal 1 will probably be next after that, though I can’t imagine it will be done for several more years.

    • CF says:

      What thephantomblot said.

      Virgin America has gates 50, 51AB, 52, 53, 54AB while American has 55, 56AB, 57, 58AB, 59. Gate 59 will become common use down the road.

      Concourse E, the old AA concourse, is going to get a renovation to be fit for more Star Alliance tenants. There are longer term plans for Terminal 1, but I don’t believe any of that has been approved.

  3. Brett they aren’t refill stations they are ‘Hydration Stations’ . That’s all we keep hearing about around here in the news……lol

    That is the best location as you said for plane watching, to bad it’s not like the old days with outdoor viewing areas above the termial. It’s to bad areas like that are rare to find these days.

    I think I do remember hearing in the beginning that it would be Virgin America and Southwest in there, but the place is to nice for WN who would have to pay more to be there I would think and not want to do that. Virgina America and JetBlue together would not have worked since both have two different styles and they wouldn’t have matched. But dumpy old AA seems out of place also, but international connections from their Asian partners will get to share the Virgin style while waiting to board tired AA planes.

  4. Bill Hough says:

    The “artwork” above the “recompose” area looks like fish nets to me. I agree that the window views from the gate area are nice, but they ruined it with those damn dots that make photography next to impossible. I guess 96% of the people won’t care but it’s annoying nonetheless. And I personally find that all of the “sustainable” nonsense is overdone as one would expect for the Bay Area.

  5. Bill Hough says:

    Moderation is the key. Unfortunately, the Bay Area is turning into an eco-fascist state.

  6. Sanjeev M says:

    Well they were able to acheive sustainable and probably LEED Silver for less than many airports took to build normal terminals. I’m thinking Sacramento, San Jose, etc. granted this was only a renovation.

    But SFO wants to attract people to Virgin America. It seems that among airport-airline relationships, VX and SFO is the healthiest (i.e. neither one dominates).

    • CF says:

      And Virgin America is working toward LEED Platinum for its crew area under the concourse.

      • Steve Ly says:

        Anybody else find it funny that VX, the holier-than-thou “sustainable” airline chose to celebrate the terminal’s opening by bringing in the hugely expensive Virgin Galactic “spaceship?” What is the “carbon footprint” of the high-rolling Virgin Galactic operation, including the impact on the environment of the construction of that spaceport in New Mexico?

    • It was a bit more than a “renovation”. They stripped over 50% of the terminal down to nothing but the steel girder exoskeleton which was visible for months. Less than what happened with Jet Blue at the old JFK TWA terminal but a heckuva lot more than what’s going to happen to the part of SFO’s Terminal 3 that American occupied.

  7. Jeff says:

    I went to the T2 open house last Saturday. Looks great, and I’m looking forward to actually flying through there. As a Virgin America flyer, I will say I did like their previous location in the International Terminal (easy BART access etc.), but I do like the relative compactness of T2. In the Intl Terminal, if you are already sitting at the gate and decide you want to snack or shop (or use the restroom), it’s kind of a hike (and a bland one at that) to the amenities.

  8. Allan says:

    Two of Cranky’s least favorite things in the world (Virgin America and a new terminal) get generally positive remarks. Hell hath frozen over. This was a good post.

    I was expecting something more like, “yuck, Virgin America offers too many cool on-board amenities, this will never work. Why is this terminal so much nicer than the one in Tijuana. All terminals should look like the one in tijuana. Who needs air conditioning??? This is wasteful, I’m angry, why don’t airlines publish their schedules on parchment anymore?!?!? I collect those. Here’s one from Western Airlines.”

    • ^^^ LOL!

      I too was at the T2 Open House Saturday. Very nice indeed. Too bad I’m sort of permanently attached to Star Alliance these days. I’ll rarely get to use this Terminal.

  9. BTW, you don’t state it and I don’t know the answer but I have to assume VX moving to Terminal 2 means that the days of using the Virgin Atlantic Lounge in the International Terminal are over with. American was boasting it had the only lounge in Terminal 2. True albeit a bit gratuitous as a selling point given that there’s only two airlines there.

    • Jeff says:

      @Doug: It looks like VX’s lounge page for SFO has been revised and even includes directions between T2 and the VA Clubhouse, so I’m assuming the relationship will continue.
      http://www.virginamerica.com/travel/airport-lounge.html

      • That’s crazy. You’d have to leave the lounge like an hour before your flight. You have to budget time to get on the monorail, get through TSA, get to your gate and board the plane…to say nothing of checking you and/or your bags in. Of course you could go check in first but then you have to go over to the International Terminal and then come back.

        I don’t think many VX travelers will be using the VA Clubhouse. It’s just too much of a Charlie Foxtrot.

  10. Another thing worth noting is that Terminal 2 is not currently set up to handle international arrivals, at least not as far as I could tell from what I saw at the Open House. I didn’t see a separate baggage claim with a customs check.

    While this currently is not an issue for American because American doesn’t fly internationally from SFO, it is an issue for VX which flies to Mexico from SFO. How are they going to handle international arrivals on VX? Do they have to arrive at the International Terminal?

  11. BTW, here’s my photo album from the Open House

    http://bit.ly/hQaHLI

    I agree that T2 is the best spot to watch the planes take off but that glass is plane spotter hostile because of the little dots in the glass wreak havoc with my camera’s auto focus.

  12. doc says:

    Nice report and great pics.

    ISTR you were going to clarify who paid for any trips (eg. BA to LHR).

    Who paid for your travel to SFO (VX, AA, SFO itself, yourself or other)?

    • CF says:

      You got it. I disclose everything at crankyflier.com/ethics but there was nothing to disclose here. I was in town for a wedding and was able to squeeze this visit in while I was there. My original plan was to use buddy passes from an old friend at United but after a flight canceled, I bought a walkup fare on JetBlue. I used a buddy pass on the way home. I will get that trip report out one of these days.

  13. Joe B says:

    If you draw a circle around the parking structure it looks like 2 frequent fliers enjoyng a Virgin/American cocktail!

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  15. Barry says:

    Great report and photos, as usual, Brett! While there a lot of cool design forms, i think my favorite might be the wing-shaped fluorescent light fixtures at the check-in counters.

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  17. Dave says:

    What problems did it create with Virgin moving to T2 and customs? At the old location, they were right there by customs.

  18. Rich says:

    Just wondering — have they added any corridors allowing passage to T2 behind security, as they did between T3 and the Star Alliance side of the Int’l Terminal?

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