American Beauty

Cover Story American Beauty By Richard Rowe February 2000 With its lavish lines and dashing good looks, San Francisco Airport’s stunning new international terminal building is a conceptual dream. Passengers will love it, but what about the...


Cover Story

American Beauty

By Richard Rowe

February 2000

With its lavish lines and dashing good looks, San Francisco Airport’s stunning new international terminal building is a conceptual dream. Passengers will love it, but what about the ground operators? Richard Rowe paid a visit.

If ever an airport needed a new international terminal it was San Francisco. A flourishing route network to the Pacific Rim and a strengthening Atlantic product has long exerted tremendous pressure on the old, 10-gate international facility built almost half a century ago.

International traffic has doubled since 1985, and is forecast to rise from seven million passengers in 1998 to 12 million by 2006 (overall traffic at the airport is expected to jump from 40 million to 51 million by 2006).

With its limited number of gates, remote operations ruled the roost at the old facility and some carriers had to resort to rescheduling flights to the evening for when gates became available. To make matters worse, several carriers added international flights in anticipation of the new terminal’s original opening date of May 2000. By the time the opening was eventually pushed back to December, the old terminal was fit to burst.

It was a similar story out on the ramp. San Francisco is a land locked airport, with water on two sides and a major freeway on the other. Subsequently, ground support equipment staging and parking space was like gold dust. GSE was left wherever it could be parked, greatly compromising safety. Equipment had to be monitored constantly and impounding was common.

The airport acted, in July 1996, by issuing a moratorium on the number of ground handlers at the airport. "This was put in place on all new ground handlers unless they had a sponsoring air carrier which had exclusive space to park and maintain their GSE," explains Kevin Van Hoy, Property Manager, Aviation Management, San Francisco Airport.

This pruned the number of ground handlers at the airport, and stabilized a market that had seen its fair share of comings and goings between service providers. The surviving players comprise three, full service ground handling agents: Swissport, Ogden (now part of Menzies Aviation Group), and local handler, Monarch Aviation. Dominant carrier, United Airlines, self handles and offers third party services partly as a revenue stream and partly through alliance (Star) and reciprocal arrangements with airlines such as ANA, Air China, and Virgin Atlantic.

Most other U.S. majors--including Northwest, Continental and Delta--self handle and perform some alliance-related work. Continental even ramp handles Alitalia at the new terminal despite not having an international service of its own at San Francisco.

With the new international terminal now in operation, the airport is in a handling holding pattern. "We are evaluating the ability to handle the equipment we currently have out there to see whether we can accommodate an additional ground handler," explains Van Hoy. "The demand for an additional handler is there from the carriers, and we have made a commitment to them that after six months we would let them know if we could accommodate another handler and then help them with the bid process."

With a price tag of US$993 million, construction began on the new, reputedly earthquake-proof international terminal in 1995--the centerpiece of a $2.6 billion airport makeover. Given the quality of life in the past, it was with some relief that the airport unveiled its new facility with a phased opening that began in September, but saw the bulk of movement in early December.

Although the timing was ambitious--just in time to face Christmas and Chinese New Year--the transition went smoothly with no sign of the vitriolic press coverage that accompanied the flawed openings of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur’s new airports in 1998. By December 10, San Francisco could talk proudly of its new international terminal which, at 2.5 million square feet, is the largest terminal in North America.

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