September 29, 2023

Renovation of a Terminal, Keyed to San Francisco

More Standard Hotel than standard airport gateway, T2, as it is known here, is one of the few terminals renovated top to bottom since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and represents an ambitious attempt by the airport and airlines to take both stress and carbon out of air travel. The $383 million renovation gutted a drab 1950s-era building that last served as the international terminal before being shuttered more than a decade ago. Even compared with more contemporary terminals at San Francisco International, T2 represents a new approach to airport design. It opens on Thursday.

“It’s about the intersection between passenger delight and bringing back the joy of flying with the high-performance building aspects,” said Melissa Mizell, a senior associate with Gensler, the San Francisco firm that designed the renovation. “That really guided a lot of our decisions, even with sustainability.”

The words delight, joy and flying do not usually appear in the same sentence. But airport officials, airlines and architects said that they put as much emphasis on redefining the travel experience as on lessening its environmental impact.

“We wanted this to feel like a San Francisco terminal and not a terminal anywhere else in the world,” Raymond Quesada, an airport project manager, said as he stood in the soaring, light- and art-filled ticket lobby shared by Virgin America and American Airlines, the terminal’s two tenants.

Those San Francisco values include a city mandate to achieve at least LEED Silver status for the renovation. LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is a rating system administrated by the United States Green Building Council that ranks structures according to points earned for energy efficiency, water conservation and other environmentally beneficial attributes.

Airport officials intend to apply for LEED Gold certification, and if it is awarded, T2 will be the first airport terminal in the United States to achieve such a ranking, according to Ashley Katz, a spokeswoman for the building council.

Drivers of hybrid and electric cars get preferential parking in the nearby garage, and there are vehicle-charging stations for the electric cars. Cool air seeps from perforated white wall panels in the terminal rather than being forced down from the ceiling.  The system, called displacement ventilation, cuts energy use by 20 percent because the air does not need to be cooled as much since it displaces the rising warmer air,  Mr. Quesada said. 

Reclaimed water is pumped into the restrooms, reducing water consumption by 40 percent. The abundant natural light through walls of windows makes most daytime artificial lighting unnecessary.

Passengers are encouraged to carry reusable bottles and fill them at blue “hydration stations” in the terminal rather than buy throwaway bottled water.

“Originally, we were considering banning the sale of bottled water, but we got a lot of pushback from the concessionaires,” Mr. Quesada said. “But they are required to sell more environmentally friendly plastic bottles. But again, we’re hoping they won’t have to do that and people will bring their own bottles to the airport.”

Under their leases, food sellers must use utensils and packaging that can be composted, and compost bins are prominently displayed in the terminal. The airport scores more LEED points for making the green experience educational through signs and even a mobile phone tour.

But passengers will probably pay most attention to the terminal’s food, fashion and flow, all of which reflect the esthetic of Virgin America, which has its headquarters in San Francisco.

The neon mood lighting found on Virgin planes is mirrored in the lobbylike ticketing area, where pods of those high-backed, Danish-designed Egg chairs are clustered around sculptures and paintings by local artists.

The security checkpoint has six lanes to expedite screening and passengers exit into an airy “recompose area” that features colorful ottomans, installed with the Transportation Security Administration dispensation in place of the government’s usual utilitarian benches.

That area opens into a food hall modeled after the one in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and offers some of the same upscale Bay Area restaurants, including Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread, Napa Farms Market and Lark Creek Grill. Travelers hungering for a Burger King or Dunkin’ Donuts are out of luck.

“The whole idea is that you feel like you’re in San Francisco, with an emphasis on local, organic produce,” Mr. Quesada said.

Beyond the food hall are the gates, arrayed in two wings. “The concept was to make this area very much like a lounge,” he said. “You could be in the food area and still be within ear- and eyeshot of your check-in podium and thus minimize stress.”

Free Wi-Fi and the presence of some 350 power outlets — available on work tables and every few seats in the gate areas — may well also be a major stress reducer for travelers accustomed to sprawling on terminal floors with their laptops.

Virgin does not plan on having a separate airport lounge. “We feel like the gate area is the lounge,” Ross Bonanno, Virgin’s vice president for airports and guest service, said as he rested an arm on an Egg chair.

(American Airlines has built a dedicated lounge, which will seek LEED Silver status.)

David Cush, Virgin America’s chief executive, said he was hoping the green-tinged amenities would give the airline an edge with sustainable-minded travelers.

“Certainly for San Francisco and people who live in the Bay Area, this is a top-of-mind issue,” said the tan and long-haired Mr. Cush, who could be mistaken for a local surfer. “It’s becoming a bigger and bigger top-of-mind issue for corporate America in terms of travel policies.”

But how much impact can a low-carbon terminal really have on the most carbon-intensive form of transportation?

“Not traveling is really not an option, so the real question is how do we make it more sustainable,” Mr. Cush said, noting that in January Virgin America placed an order for 30 Airbus A320neo jetliners, which will be 15 percent more efficient than current models while emitting far fewer pollutants.

“It can be green and fun,” he added. “You don’t have to choose one or the other.”

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