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When it comes to amenities, San Francisco airport soars above the competition

One of the most delay-plagued airports in the country is also among the most innovative and profitable, offering spas, high-end restaurants, showers, a meditation center, even an accredited art museum.

July 03, 2011|By Maria L. LaGanga and Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • Among the offerings at San Francisco International's Terminal 3: a full-service independent bookstore.
Among the offerings at San Francisco International's Terminal 3:… (David Butow, For The Times )

Reporting from San Francisco and Los Angeles —

Cheryle and Ernest Chin were anxious about getting home to Australia, and American Airlines wasn't making it easy.

The massage therapist and her real estate developer husband had started out three days earlier in Brazil; they were still thousands of miles away, and the shortest flight of their multicontinent odyssey had just been canceled — San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Photos: San Francisco International

But for two people on a forced seven-hour layover, the Chins looked remarkably relaxed. Ernest was face-down in a massage chair at the XpresSpa in San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 3, his neck and shoulders being expertly kneaded. Cheryle was admiring her half of a his-and-hers pedicure.

If you have to be marooned at a California airport, San Francisco is the place to be. Free WiFi? Check. Linen-tablecloth restaurants? Check. Meditation center? Accredited art museum? Showers? Full-service independent bookseller with a children's section, Man Booker Prize winners and shelves of erotica? Yep.

And that was before the flashy new Terminal 2 opened in April, with its slow-food restaurants, broad workstations, nearly 350 electrical outlets for laptops and chargers, and a "recompose area" for getting dressed after the often-stressful security screenings.

For the better part of a generation, Los Angeles International Airport has been hard-pressed to catch up to other major airports and to its smaller, sleeker competitor to the north. Although LAX officials are now doubling the size of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, the airport has lagged painfully behind SFO in critical renovation.

Airports have long been architectural statements, grand municipal gateways that shout "you are here!" in steel and glass. Think Berlin's Tempelhof circa 1938, which Hitler called an "air stadium," or nearly anything built in the 1990s — described as the Age of Air Terminals just as the mid-13th century was the Age of Cathedrals.

With Terminal 2, SFO Director John L. Martin hopes to make airport interiors as distinctive as their soaring rooflines. The airport that began in 1927 as a wooden hangar on a dirt road with a lunch room and four cots today is home to America's newest terminal, filled with natural light, commissioned art, "hydration stations" and ample eco-friendly touches.

"I'd like to think we started a new trend here in Terminal 2," Martin said. "There's a look and feel to the terminal that's akin to a W Hotel, which changed the look and feel of hotel lobbies in a dramatic way. That's what I see SFO moving toward."

SFO's success is all the more remarkable considering its Achilles' heel: Because it is perched on the edge of San Francisco Bay, a combination of runway configuration and bad weather place it among the most delay-plagued airports in the country — the worst for arrivals and second-worst for departures after Chicago's Midway International, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

Fly and buy

San Francisco unveiled its sparkling International Terminal to great fanfare in 2000.

With marble hallways, bright, airy holding areas, and the ability to handle today's massive jets, the new terminal was billed as America's biggest. The first airport-based Gucci boutique in the country was built there, along with a full-scale medical clinic and a meditation center whose compass rose helps the faithful find Mecca. The terminal was key to an important goal: becoming the aviation gateway to Asia.

SFO is proof positive of why it pays for airports to coddle their passengers — particularly international travelers. Happy passengers with lots of options spend more money.

San Francisco is only the 10th-busiest airport in the United States, but it vaults to No. 4 in North America based on how much departing passengers spend per capita at airports with international flights. Only John F. Kennedy, Vancouver and Montreal-Trudeau airports make more per so-called enplanement. LAX is 10th on the list.

SFO rakes in $14.08 per enplanement, according to the 2010 Airport Revenue News Fact Book, compared with $11.66 at LAX. When duty-free sales to overseas travelers are stripped out, the take drops to $11.17 and $8.85, respectively.

But not even fancy amenities are a shield from disaster. Shortly after SFO's international hall opened, "every conceivable problem that hit the industry hit this airport hardest," said Martin, who was hired by SFO out of graduate school in 1981 and became director in 1995.

"I was hit by the dot-com crash, hardest in San Francisco," he said in a recent interview. "Everybody was hit by 9/11, but United [Airlines] filed for bankruptcy shortly afterward and they're 50% of my traffic and they cut back a lot. I was hit by SARS" — the virus outbreak that began in China — "because we're such a big Asia destination. Southwest [Airlines] pulled out of the market."

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