Saturday, April 9, 2011

SFO's Terminal 2 is Back, and Way Better

Back in 1954, San Francisco International Airport opened what is now terminal 2. For years, it served as SFO's international terminal - a gateway to and from the great world. When, in December 2000, SFO, the San Francisco Bay Area's major airport, opened a beautiful new international terminal, terminal 2 morphed into an airport version of the Arabian peninsula's Empty Quarter - vast, sparsely inhabited (a few offices operated there), unused by travelers.

That was then. This week, a drastically revamped terminal 2 finally reopened to passengers, as a domestic terminal, for the first time in just over a decade. Designed by the architectural firm Gensler and rebuilt for $383 million USD, it is stunning - airy, spacious, welcoming, high-tech to the max, stocked with first-rate food and beverage outlets like the Bay Area company Peet's Coffee & Tea and studded with power outlets and work stations.

I traipsed through a community open house Saturday, and the experience took me back to childhood when air travel was considered fun, even glamorous. It says something about my childhood entertainment options that my parents, little sister and I used to go to our local airport on the East Coast and watch the planes take-off and land. We didn't fly then but we could dream. San Francisco International Airport Director John Martin, who I chatted with at the open house, said he used to do the same thing. "In high school, my girlfriend and I did that,'' he grinned. A suitable past-time for a future airport director. I'm not sure what my excuse was.

In any case, the new terminal is as handsome as any domestic air terminal in the United States - and it is the first domestic U.S. terminal to win LEED Gold certification, thanks to its extensive recycling program, energy efficency, water-reduction measures and other steps. Martin says the terminal - which opens to flights on Thursday, 14 April - came in "on time and under budget.'' Some 5.5 million passengers are expected to use it annually. SFO has three other terminals.

The reborn T-2 will be home to San Francisco-based Virgin America, which will operate seven gates, and will be used for domestic flights by American Airlines, which will operate another seven. For American, it is something of a homecoming.

AA flew from T-2 from 1954 until its shutdown. In the reconfigured space - largely unrecognizable to us longtime fliers who remember how it used to look - American will operate an Admirals Club passenger lounge awash in natural light, graced inside with small living pine trees, hotel-lobby-like seating and great runway views. The new lounge - the only one in the reinvented T-2 - is about twice the size of the old Admirals Club in T-3, which AA is vacating. The T-2 lounge has LEED Silver status.

"We built this terminal to put some of the romance back into air travel,'' Martin says. "It's a facility that sets the standard for passenger comfort. It's a dream terminal.''

On the basis of design alone, the romance is back. Of course, workaday aviation hassles such as security inspections and baggage-handling systems will remain as operational realities - nothing too romantic there. But airport officials are justifiably proud of the new terminal, and had smiles on their faces as thousands of camera-toting locals wandered happily through the bright new space, while singers sang and bands played and little kids ran around, laughing.

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