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...


Systems testing took place well before December. Local charter carriers Allegro and SkyService (handled by Monarch Aviation) were willing guinea pigs. "We put through over 100,000 passengers and about 160,000 items of baggage before starting general operations," says Robert McKinley, Assistant Deputy Director, International Terminal Management.

Airport trainers also put 2,000 airline managers and employees through their paces during the build up, as well as conducting numerous orientations. The airport was aggressive about identifying accountability and ownership for particular systems.

"We had a group of professionals move into this building who were very familiar with what they were supposed to do on the first day of operations," says McKinley. "The transition went very well, and the training had a lot to do with that."

The operational advantages of the new facility are as clear as the light that streams through the upper reaches of the terminal building. The 24 wide-body gates (with two more to come) consign remote operations to a thing of the past. The addition of dual loading bridges on each gate allows for more efficient boarding and deplaning.

Passengers are delivered quickly to a revamped, centrally located Federal Inspection Services (FIS) area that can process 5,000 passengers per hour, as opposed to the 1,250 of the old FIS facility. San Francisco used to be one of the only international terminals in the U.S. where immigration was conducted after passengers had collected their baggage. In the new terminal, passengers clear immigration to find their baggage waiting for them.

Passengers are served by 168 check-in positions in 12 designated check-in aisles. There are more carousels, better staging areas, and a "common use" rather than proprietary terminal which allows maximum flexibility for accommodating flight irregularities without resorting to remote operations and bussing.

A fully automated baggage handling system, designed and installed by BAE Automated Systems, takes bags down to where aircraft are parked rather than to a centralized make up room. Hand held scanners are used for positive bag match and baggage reconciliation which is built into the inline baggage handling system.

"The system provides real time data on the boarding process for ground handlers to improve baggage handling and increase on-time departure performance," says Van Hoy.

Of all the airlines operating at San Francisco, it was perhaps United Airlines that most recognized the need for a new facility. United represents about 65% of traffic in the international terminal, and airport-wide.

"We were flat out of real estate, and it prevented us from maintaining schedules," says Ray Klinke, United’s International Manager at San Francisco. "The ground level space was almost prohibitive as far as parking and it put aircraft in jeopardy with the amount of ground equipment that was surrounding the envelope."

Klinke says that the new terminal has given United, and the airport community as a whole, a new face.

But while Klinke believes that the opening of the terminal "was probably the best of any airport in the last 10 years," the much-vaunted baggage handling system has yet to live up to its reputation. The multi-level system should be a huge plus, but the inline screening has yet to function as it should.

"Many carriers have implemented a third level of security in case it’s not done below the floor," says Klinke. "It is the smart and safe thing to do, but more cumbersome from a work standpoint. It’s causing multi handling of bags that shouldn’t happen."

The system has broken down a handful of times in the first month of operations. With a schedule like United’s that sees 12 flights (almost all wide-bodies) departing in a three-hour window between 11a.m. and 2 p.m., the seriousness of such downtime is clear.

Based on their operational experience, there is a feeling amongst some operators that they could have been consulted a little more on operational requirements at the new terminal. "The airport would bring us in to tell us what was going on, but it was more information than intelligence," says one.

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