San Francisco International's Business Still Turbulent

Although ridership has been gradually bouncing back, passenger load remains down about 10 percent from 2000.

"We had a large mortgage on a home no one was coming to live in, basically,'' McCarron said of the dark days right after Sept. 11.

SFO, accordingly, put the terminal renovation -- expected to cost $150 million to $160 million -- on hold. It also set aside plans for the hotel, and reduced staff from 1,800 employees to below 1,200.

Additionally, SFO lowered landing fees for airlines and reduced rents for airport retailers and restaurateurs struggling during the downturn. "It would do us no good to have them go out of business,'' McCarron said, adding that their rents have returned to normal in the past year.

But SFO's efforts to lure low-fare airlines, which have grabbed increasing market share from traditional carriers such as United in recent years, have been spotty.

United rolled out its own low-fare unit Ted at SFO in 2004, but discount leader Southwest Airlines pulled out of SFO, fledgling discount carrier Independence Air stayed aloft for less than a year and discounter ATA decamped from SFO to Oakland -- a growing rival ruled chiefly by such low-cost carriers as Southwest and JetBlue Airways.

Meanwhile, Virgin America, a planned low-fare airline that announced SFO will be its headquarters back in June 2004, has yet to win the Federal Aviation Administration's certification to fly.

While SFO struggled in a radically changed business environment, it scrambled to keep up with the post-Sept. 11 need for intensified security.

The National Guard, patrolling the airport immediately after Sept. 11, is remembered for an incident in which a guardsman shot himself in the buttocks while holstering his weapon.

When the new Department of Homeland Security put its Transportation Security Administration in charge, SFO had to let go of most of its baggage screeners. Many were Philippine citizens who lacked newly required U.S. citizenship, and some couldn't pass tests for English proficiency, said the TSA's Edward Gomez, federal security director at SFO.

About 150 of the 1,000 baggage screeners at SFO are holdovers, Gomez said, and are employed under TSA guidelines by private contractor Covenant Aviation. SFO is "by far the largest'' of the seven U.S. airports using private screeners, he said. Others use TSA employees.

McCarron said lines to pass through security checkpoints take on average seven or eight minutes -- much less time than at many other U.S. and foreign airports. He also said that private contractors give SFO flexibility in scheduling, which shortens customers' wait times. Gomez agreed, saying the airlines give the TSA daily estimates of how many passengers have booked flights, which allows security officials to schedule baggage screeners accordingly.

On a recent weekday afternoon, United passenger William Hill said he found the wait acceptable at SFO's international terminal, where he planned to board a flight to Beijing. "It's not too bad,'' he said. "At least it's moving, which is more than I can say for Newark (N.J.), where I must have waited for an hour and a half. The people here (screeners) are pretty nice, too. They're usually polite.''

The TSA uses plainclothes air marshals to observe passengers before they board planes, looking for unusual behavior that could betray potential troublemakers, Gomez said. SFO also employs 1,400 closed circuit video cameras, the most of any airport in the country, to monitor people in the terminals, and boasts this country's first explosive detection system for X-raying every checked bag, not just a sampling.

"We have layered security levels,'' Gomez said. "A lot of what we do, the public doesn't see. We need to be unpredictable in what we do.''

New regulations restricting the type of liquids and gels in carry-on luggage -- prompted by the Aug. 10 plot in Britain to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners -- are the latest security wrinkle.

McCarron says the public has largely been cooperative and seems well-informed about the use of liquids in carry-ons, but acknowledged that tighter rules have hurt some SFO retailers who sell liquid products. He cited terminal 3's Body Shop and a wine store as businesses whose trade has been hurt in recent weeks.

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