Can the Real San Francisco Airport Please Stand Up?

SFO and OAK Both Want to Claim the Bay Area City, but Neither Is Actually Located There

What’s in a name? wonders columnist Joe Mathews. SFO—or should that be, San Mateo County International Airport?— isn’t in the City or County of San Francisco. San Francisco with Oakland, Alameda, and Mt. Diablo in the background. Courtesy of Michael Estigoy/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

I’ve never much cared for San Francisco International Airport—until SFO decided to take a courageous stand for truth and accuracy in airport names.

Last month, SFO’s leaders filed a lawsuit to stop the Port of Oakland from changing Oakland International Airport’s name to “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.”

Author and Oakland native Gertrude Stein famously said “There is no there there” of her hometown. Which is perhaps why the Oakland Port Commission justified the name change by saying it wanted to educate travelers unfamiliar with California that Oakland is an actual place that sits on the bay. I also believe that Oakland may have been combating a widespread misperception among Star Wars fans that it’s on Planet Tatooine; after all, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was a native Oaklander.

Fortunately, SFO saw through the Oakland’s airport Jedi mind trick. The lawsuit accuses its East Bay competitor of trademark infringement as part of a grab for more air traffic. SFO also alleges that the name change creates the impression that Oakland is in San Francisco, which it is not.

I admire SFO’s bold commitment to defending geographic integrity. Which is why I’m so excited to see the airport take the next logical step in advancing the same principle, by changing its own inaccurate name.

I can hear it now: My Southwest Airlines pilot asks me to return my seat back to its full upright position—and then welcomes me to San Mateo County International Airport.

Because SFO, just like Oakland, isn’t in the City or County of San Francisco. It’s in an unincorporated corner of northeast San Mateo County, south of San Francisco.

As a lifelong SFO passenger, I can testify that taking San Francisco out of SFO’s name would be a service to the flying public.

Because it’s actually quite difficult to get into or out of San Francisco via the airport with San Francisco in its name.

You might even say that Oakland is a better San Francisco airport than San Francisco’s airport.

SFO’s problems start with flight delays. For years, it’s had among the highest rates of delayed flights in the United States. Other badly delayed airports typically have snow or severe winter weather. Of course, SFO has fog, but fog alone doesn’t make so many flights late. It’s the poor organization of the airport itself. Its two main, parallel runways are too close together to permit landings at the same time. So, when visibility is low, there are delays. This year, a construction project has been creating still more backups.

And if fog and poor organization don’t trap you at SFO, the airport’s design will. Today’s SFO was largely created 20 years ago, via an expansion that was hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The project left the airport feeling overbuilt and bloated, with too much distance between ground transportation and gates.

Today, getting to your flight at SFO requires taking slow rides on an internal Air Train (whose construction was dogged by corruption allegations) and taking long walks through large, glassy, and often empty halls. Even when security lines are short, walking alone can add 20 minutes to your trip. Travel websites routinely advise SFO passengers to arrive at the airport two or more hours early.

And the transportation options outside the airport are no picnic, either. SFO sits at a traffic chokehold point, with crammed freeways and dead-end streets. Public buses stop at the terminals, but the main line, SamTrans 292, only shows up every 30 minutes or so. And Caltrain, the peninsula commuter line, doesn’t stop at the airport.

BART trains have a station inside the airport, which is nice. But many trains on that line don’t go into the airport, ending their routes four stops earlier at Daly City instead. And there are so many BART stops along the 13 miles between SFO and downtown San Francisco that the trip can take nearly an hour.

When I need to go to downtown San Francisco, I fly into Oakland. It’s faster, less likely to experience delays, and more reliable. And the airport’s two terminals are small and efficient, so that it’s just two minutes from my gate to ground transportation. The airport also has a connector train to BART that can take you into San Francisco in just five stops, or down to Fremont and San Jose with ease.

You might even say that Oakland is a better San Francisco airport than San Francisco’s airport.

Of course, I would never say that. No way. Because your truth-telling columnist is 100 percent behind SFO’s righteous defense of geographic accuracy in airport names.

But I will say this: Until this cross-bay airport dispute is over, and until SFO follows its own principle and changes its name to San Mateo County International, I am changing my own name to honor the Bay Area airport I actually enjoy flying into.

So, for the time being, you can call me San Francisco Bay Joe.


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