A lot of hype has surrounded San Francisco's new $383 million Terminal 2, and rightly so. The 640,000-square-foot T2 is equally shared by American Airlines (www.aa.com) and Virgin America (www.virginamerica.com). Both airlines control seven gates each, and both airlines have about 30 departures a day.
Here's what to look out for on your next layover at San Francisco International Airport (www.flysfo.com), which provides nonstop service to more than 65 U.S. cities on 21 domestic airlines and to 32 international points on 27 international carriers.
Chances are you'll find that T2 is one of the few terminals where you'll want to show up extra early for your flight.
AirTrain to BART: The cheapest way into the city (besides getting a friend to pick you up) is taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). To get to the airport's BART station, just follow the BART signs. On the top floor of T2 is the free AirTrain, which will drop you off after about a five-minute ride at the BART station. It cost me $8.10 to go from the airport to the city's last stop (Embarcadero). Note: A taxi is roughly $40 to the city center.
Curbside Check-in: On my tour of T2 with American Airlines' SFO general manager Denise Marrs, I learned that American (and the other airlines) stopped charging the $2 for curbside check-in back in 2008. How did I miss that announcement? I think many others did too, since most curbside check-in has little or no wait, including at SFO. If you are checking bags, you might as well do it curbside.
Check-in Counters: When I returned to SFO via BART/AirTrain from my night in the city, I entered T2 from the third floor, where there is a good-size departure board with an elevator directly behind it and escalators to each side. To the left is American Airlines' check-in area, and to the left is Virgin America's. What surprised me most is that the area wasn't as big as I imagined. American Airlines' SFO general manager said that's because fewer passengers are using agents these days to check in -- especially in tech-savvy San Francisco. Most passengers check in online.
Before the Security Checkpoint, Plan Ahead for Food & Drink: In the check-in area, don't expect to find any retail options. Starbucks is the only place to get a newspaper or something to eat or drink. You'll find Starbucks next to the American Airlines check-in and before security. What you will find at both airlines' check-in areas are some cool wing-shaped lights.
Hydration Stations: My favorite part of the new terminal, which surely will score high with eco lovers and budget-minded consumers, is the Hydration Stations. Near security, instead of a trash can where you have to throw away your full or empty water bottle, they have a drain. Simply empty your bottle there (after you chug as much of it as you can). Once you're through security, go over to one of the special tap-water hydration stations and fill it back up. The water tastes pretty good and it's from the "pristine Sierra snowmelt."
More Green Design Elements: One of the best attributes of T2 is how green it is, and what better place to have a green airport than San Francisco? T2's green design elements include paperless ticketing, natural skylights, vendors selling organic food, and energy-efficient heating, cooling, and ventilation with occupancy sensors. Also, "T2 is the nation's first terminal renovation built to LEED Gold specifications," says Turner Construction senior vice president Michael O'Brien. "We managed to recycle 93 percent of our construction waste, diverting more than 18,500 tons from our landfills,"
Cell Phone Reception: I have T-Mobile, and my cell phone didn't work in the middle of the terminal, but it worked fine near the window areas.
Wi-Fi and Electrical Outlets: There's free Wi-Fi in the whole terminal, with up to 45 minutes free. There are than 350 power outlets all over T2, so there's no need to fight to find one. T2 also has work-oriented counter seating and laptop work tables.
Security Checkpoints: What's interesting is that SFO's security -- Covenant Aviation Security (www.cassfocustomerservice.com), under the guidance of the TSA (www.tsa.gov) -- said they have now been instructed to ask each passenger his or her last name. It's not clear if the TSA will take this on themselves or not. What drives me crazy about the TSA is that their rules are not consistent -- not only between different airports but even between terminals.
Recompose Area: Once through security, you are in a place the airport calls the "recompose" area. Turner Construction and Gensler Design created it to reinvent the airport user experience for the modern traveler. The recompose area is a calming space with cushioned ottomans to allow passengers a quiet and unhurried place to reassemble their clothing and carry-on items. You certainly won't miss the three original ceiling installations called Every Beating Second, created by American artist Janet Echelman. Echelman is known for reshaping urban airspace with monumental, fluidly moving sculpture that responds to environmental forces including wind, water, and sunlight.
Dining: Once you get past security, T2 has 21 concession locations with nearly 30,000 square feet of retail development. The Dining & Shopping Marketplace was inspired by San Francisco's historic Ferry Building: The restaurants and retailers are some of the best in the Bay Area, all focusing on locally sourced, organic offerings. Vendors include Andale, Cat Cora, Lark Creek Grill, Napa Farms, Burger Joint & Vino Volo, Peet's Coffee & Tea, The Plant Café Organic, and Pinkberry. It's the first airport dining program in the nation to recruit Slow Food vendors and requires the use of compostable utensils and containers.
Shops: The retail shops include I-Tech X-perience, Kiehl's, Mango, Mosaic Fine Art and Craft Gallery, Natalie's Candy Jar, Pacific Outfitters, and XpresSpa.
Artwork: You'll also find dozens of pieces by local and international artists. The five permanent new public art works commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission for T2 include: Norie Sato's Air Over Under; Kendall Buster's Topography; and Echelman's Every Beating Second. Find more art in the children's play area. Note: Some of the art exhibits have cell phone-accessible narrations of the works by guides.
Museum: I've always loved SFO's art exhibits in the terminals. They are all presented by the SFO Museum, and the current exhibit in T2 is titled "A Century of Silver and Metalwork from the Margo Grant Walsh Collection," which will be on display through Oct. 2, 2011.
Children's Play Area: T2 has two unique children's play areas, both with original artwork that double as play pieces by Bay Area artists Walter Kitundu and Charles Sowers. One features Sowers's Butterfly Wall and the other is Kintundu's Bay Area Bird Encounters.
Admirals Club: The only lounge in T2 is American's Admirals Club (www.aa.com). At 9,400 square feet, it's nearly double the size of their old club in T3, and it seats 165 people versus 90. It's also a whole lot sweeter. Walking in feels like entering the lobby of a five-star hotel. There's a fire roaring, and a sitting area with -- get this -- fake trees. There are also comfortable seats, a mini business center, free unlimited Wi-Fi, plenty of electrical outlets, a stylish bar, free snacks, and two showers. FYI: If you do not have a membership to the Admirals Club, you can still get a day pass for the club for only $50.
Gate Area: The biggest surprise you will find in the gate area is the club-like lounge seating featuring the stylish egg chairs designed by Denmark's Fritz Hansen. We had one of these chairs growing up, so I'm particularly biased toward them.
Bathrooms: You will find touchless soap dispensers and water faucets along with Dyson high-speed dryers. Note: The Admirals Club doesn't offer the touchless stuff, so they need to work on that -- it's the only thing I found that needed improvement in the whole terminal (besides my cell phone service).
Baggage Claim: The baggage claim area still has the low ceilings of the original 1954 building, but there's no sign of the past here. Everything is bright and shiny with colorful signs.
Animal Relief Area: One sign that caught my attention walking out of the building was the Animal Relief Area. Dog lovers are going to love this -- I'm not sure how the pets will feel, though, because it was so clean that it didn't look used.
John E. DiScala (a.k.a. Johnny Jet) travels around 150,000 miles and visits over 20 countries each year. Sign up via his website for his weekly travel newsletter or follow him on Twitter at @JohnnyJet.