Earlier this month San Francisco International Airport (SFO) celebrated its 95th birthday. The largest of the three major airports serving the San Francisco Bay area, an earlier FreightWaves Classics article covered the early history of SFO. You can read that article here, while today’s article will profile the airport’s history during the first two decades of the jet age.
The jet age begins at SFO
In March 1959 the first commercial jet service at SFO began when Trans World Airlines (TWA) flew Boeing 707-120 jets to and from the airport.
Accompanying the jet aircraft were jetways, which allowed passengers to board and deplane aircraft without walking down a set of stairs and across the tarmac in the weather conditions of the moment. SFO was among the first airports in the world to install a jet bridge, or jetway.
American Airlines installed jetways for its 707s; United Airlines also installed jetways for its fleet of Douglas DC-8 aircraft in late July 1959. Airlines’ 707s, DC-8s (and later Boeing 720s), began by parking parallel to SFO’s terminal, which allowed two jet bridges to be used at one time. However, this system was updated so that aircraft were parked with their “noses” pointed toward the terminal gates, which used space much more effectively.
In 1959, British Overseas Airways Corporation (better known by its initials – BOAC) began a worldwide route (London/New York/San Francisco/Honolulu/Tokyo/Hong Kong) using Boeing 707-420s. Lufthansa began service to SFO using Boeing 707-320s in 1960. This was the era when most major Asian and European airlines joined their U.S. counterparts in replacing their propeller-driven aircraft with jet-propelled aircraft. Pan Am was the world’s first airline to begin all-jet cargo service in that time period as well.
By 1962, SFO was the fourth-busiest airport in the nation. As a by-product, one of the airport’s runways was lengthened to accommodate the heavier jet aircraft that became commonplace.
Expansion (and non-expansion) during the 1960s-1970s
The airport’s new South Terminal opened in 1963. It contained the existing E Pier, as well as two more piers. The new F Pier contained two satellites, one to the east and one to the west. Continental and Eastern used the western satellite of F Pier, while TWA used the eastern satellite. Pan Am gates were in the G Pier. In the same time period, Pan Am expanded its presence at SFO, building a maintenance center, service center and offices at the airport.
A new and different “airline” began service at the airport – SFO Helicopter Airlines. The company was founded in 1961, and it offered flights to and from various points in San Francisco and Oakland. The airline used a small fleet of Sikorsky S-61 and S-62 helicopters, as well as a hovercraft (and, later, the airline used Bell 206 helicopters). The airline was “the first scheduled air cushion vehicle passenger operation in the United States.” Unfortunately, it went out of business in the 1980s.
By 1966, SFO hit the 10 million annual passenger mark.
A Pan Am Boeing 747 was the first 747 to land at SFO (on December 21, 1969). But TWA was the first to schedule 747 service to and from SFO. On January 5, 1970, Shirley Temple Black began the 747 age at SFO when she christened 747 N93104 (the “City of San Francisco”) with champagne. To handle the widebody aircraft, TWA enlarged part of its satellite pier and also added jetways. In addition, American Airlines added two sets of double jetways for passengers of its 747 fleet.
Other widebody jet aircraft soon followed the 747s. United Airlines’ DC-10 service began in 1971; it was followed by TWA’s L1011 in 1972. The use of widebody aircraft at SFO led to the construction of a larger hangar in 1972. Located near Runway 19 Right and named the “Superbay,” the hangar first housed TWA and American Airlines 747s. Later, United Airlines also began using Superbay for its 747s.
A rotunda at Pier G was completed in 1974. Originally termed Rotunda G, it could accommodate six 747s at one time. A narrow walkway connected the rotunda to Pier G; later Rotunda G became the International Terminal.
Because of the use of larger aircraft in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as increased passenger traffic, several plans to expand SFO were drafted. Expansion plans included additional passenger terminals, rotundas and gates, the creation of a “Cargo City” as large as the terminal areas, and additional runways. However, many have not been brought to fruition due to environmental or cost concerns.
For example, SFO’s four runways were constructed as two pairs; they are only 750 feet apart from centerline to centerline. Designs for new runways that would be spaced further apart (allowing greater separation and simultaneous arrivals in poor weather conditions) have not progressed beyond the planning stages.
Oversight of SFO
The Public Utilities Commission had oversight over San Francisco International Airport for decades. This changed on September 1, 1970, when oversight was transferred to the new Airport Commission. Its five commissioners were appointed to terms by the mayor of San Francisco.
Author’s note: Background information for this article came from multiple sources, but special thanks goes to an article by Andy Payne in yesterdaysairlines.com (with numerous photos used in this article), as well as opensfhistory.org, foundsf.org and information from San Francisco International Airport.