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San Francisco Readies Its Bigger, Better Airport

SFO * A $933-million international terminal will be unveiled Sept. 26, followed, in stages, by improved facilities for domestic travelers.


San Francisco International Airport, dogged by weather-related delays and clogged with passengers--nearly 40,000 a week just on the Bay Area-Los Angeles route--has accumulated numerous detractors. The tangle of construction that has grown around SFO's terminals since 1995 hasn't won many admirers either.

But wait. Later this year, the biggest payoff of that construction--a $2.4-billion expansion and upgrade--promises to improve the place substantially for long-distance travelers. In the two years after that, life should ease considerably for domestic travelers and anybody who needs land transportation around the airport.

A new international terminal is to be unveiled Sept. 26, followed by a connection to the BART transportation network, due in December 2001. That same month, the airport is scheduled to open its own light-rail system, called Airport Rapid Transit, or ART, to connect passenger terminals with rental car facilities and the BART station.

To be sure, this doesn't mean planes will fly on time. In fact, the current expansion leaves unchanged the side-by-side runway alignment that is often blamed for compounding SFO's air-traffic delays. In February, 51.7% of SFO's domestic arrivals and 63.7% of its departures were on time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. By comparison, combined figures for the nation's 29 largest airports that month show that 74.2% of arrivals and 77.7% of departures were on time. (Many travelers from Southern California prefer to fly into the Oakland airport, where 66.9% of arrivals and 68.9% of departures were on time in February.)

SFO's international expansion is aimed at handling major growth in Pacific Rim travel in the decade ahead and is expected to ease vehicular traffic around the terminals. (The airport's centralized rental car facility, also aimed at unsnarling traffic, opened in November 1998.)

Shuttle travelers also can expect a calmer, less-crowded scene once the old international terminal is converted to handle domestic flights. That reopening is scheduled for October 2002.

In 1998, SFO handled 40.1 million arriving and departing travelers, which made it the fifth-busiest airport in the U.S. (LAX, still grappling with how to deal with its own expansion, handled 61.2 million passengers that year, ranking it third busiest in the U.S.) The current expansion is designed to bring SFO's capacity to 51 million yearly, a level it is projected to reach in 2006.

Here are details of the SFO construction roll-out:

* The new $933-million international terminal, about the size of 19 football fields, is to include 24 to 26 departure gates; the current facility has 10. Space for ticket counters, restaurants and retail uses will double, and baggage-handling capacity is to triple. Customs and immigration facilities are intended to handle up to 5,000 passengers an hour, more than four times what they can handle now.

Inside the new terminal, travelers will find a two-story, 11,000-square-foot museum, its design inspired by the airport waiting room used by travelers in 1937. (The first two exhibits, to be displayed concurrently, will examine San Francisco's airport history and the "romance and reality" of early air travel.)

* Airport and transit officials aim to open the airport's first BART station about 225 feet from the international terminal's ticket counters. The station will complete an 8.7-mile extension of the BART system, and once it's open, travel time from downtown San Francisco to the airport is pegged at 29 minutes. (Depending on the hour, the journey by car or bus often takes 45 minutes to an hour now.)

* Timed to coincide with the BART station opening, the airport light-rail system will make 10 stops on its circular route, including the north and south terminals (which handle domestic travelers), the BART station and international terminal and the rental car facility. (It's about a half-mile from domestic terminals to the rental car.) When a new high-rise airport hotel opens--that's still "a few years down the road," says SFO spokesman Ron Wilson--it will join the shuttle route.

* The current international terminal, which ceases service in September, will be converted and reopened as a new domestic terminal in October 2002, not to replace the current north and south terminals but to join them. SFO's Wilson said officials expect that the north terminal will remain home to United's domestic flights, and the south terminal will continue to house Southwest's operations.

What about that runway configuration that so often leads to delays? Any major action lies well in the future. But meanwhile, airport officials are investigating a few ideas.

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