smell that airports have in common. The second I stepped off the SkyTrain at SFO it reminded me of all of the other trips I have been on, and as I moved out among fellow travelers, chatting excitedly and dragging wheelie luggage, I was ready to take off, to depart for parts unknown. Except that this time, I wasn't at the airport to fly. I was there to do a little reconnaissance.
I've traveled a lot, and as a result, I've seen a fair share of airports – slept on the bleach-scented floor in Dublin, admired the rooftop sunflower garden in Singapore, cursed the fates that left me laid over in Chicago for 13 hours. The thing about airports is that once you are there, you are trapped. I've spent hours slouched grumpily in a departure lounge, staring at the muted TV playing an unknown sporting event, and cursing the lack of outlets for my laptop and the fact that I have to drag my bags with me to pee.
I have always
admired those graceful creatures who pop out from unmarked doors just
before boarding looking relaxed and coiffed, smiling the satisfied
smile of an insider. I want to be like them. I want to know the secrets
of first class travelers.
Therefore, for this bright new year, decade, or whatever, I have resolved to be a better traveler. Or at least a less rumpled one. More than anything, I want a way to make the pre-flight wait less horrible. So I set out, armed with a terminal map, to find the first class experience for the rest of us.
The first thing any traveler with more than a couple of hours to kill wants to do is ditch their luggage. I had thought that since 9/11 the idea of left luggage or luggage lockers was a thing of the past. As it turns out, in the full service Travel Agency, in business for 22 years and also on the departure level, it is actually possible to check your luggage (or dog kennel or kayak) for a few hours or a few days, not to mention book a flight or tour. Even more amazing, though, was what I found next door: showers.
I knew that the elite airline clubs wouldn’t let in rabble like me to use the showers, but I had no idea there’s a place for the common folk. Not only does Freshen Up have four tidy little shower rooms with sinks, mirrors, and changing spaces, your fifteen bucks not only gets you a shower, shower shoes, shampoo and soap, it also entitles you to 10 minutes in the massage chairs.
They sell every under-3 oz. toiletry product imaginable for people like me who are just as likely as not to have left them out at the last minute. The ironing board and steamer are also available to rumpled travelers who would like to tidy up before boarding (or theoretically, after de-boarding and heading out onto the town).
Tucked away in a corner of the terminal, I walked through an automatic door with a quiet swoosh and into a small doctor's office. Not just a first aid shack like I've seen at other airports, this a full scale Medical Clinic, offering H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccinations, as well as shots and pills needed for travels to tropical climes.
If your international globe trotting has you flying to parts exotic without proper time to get in to see your regular doctor, this clinic can hook you up with the vaccinations you need. There is also a full-service pharmacy at the airport which will even make deliveries throughout the airport. Although they may be able to help you same day, they prefer a few days notice for scheduled appointments.
Back upstairs, we headed to the place that had got me interested in the airport's secrets in the first place: the Aviation Museum and research library.
SFO has actually had its museum program since 1980, and there are now about 20 different galleries throughout the museum displaying art, historical artifacts, and pop-culture collections. In fact, it is the only museum in an airport to be accredited by the American Association of Museums, which allows them to show art objects on loan from top museums and private collections.
The Aviation Museum is a deco-inspired two story space echoing the classic design of small libraries everywhere, decorated with historic photos of airports around the world, with 70,000 books on aviation wrapping around the top floor balcony. I will be heading to the quiet upholstered seats by the rail overlooking the main space the next time I want to flee the crowds.
On the ground floor was a selection of historic flight-crew uniforms on one side, and scale model aircraft on the other. Hanging from the ceiling are two 1/4 scale vintage airplanes. The library is a functional research library, and it can be used by appointment for scholars, or on a drop-in, read-in basis for fliers who would like to pass some time with a good book about WWI dogfights.
Just last week they had a film showing of a documentary about a California aviatrix who made her name walking wings and flying stunts in the 1930s. Over 200 people showed up for the event, so it is looking pretty likely that there will be more where that came from.
I was a bit loathe to leave the siren call of the library stacks, but there were still a few more things to see as my theoretical pre-flight time wound down.
I have not had the pleasure of flying with children myself, but having sat in front of high-strung seat kickers, I am an enthusiastic supporter of all of the amenities that SFO has aimed at entertaining and/or wearing out kids. Some of the highlights are the California Academy of Sciences-sponsored aquarium tanks of exotic fish and brightly colored tree frogs in Domestic Terminal 1, an Exploratorium-sponsored Kid's Spot play area in Terminal 3, and private nursery areas in both terminals. But the thing that struck me as most likely to entertain every 8 year old I know was the ride on the SkyTrain monorail.
Sitting on the bench seat at the front of the train, the big glass windows provided a terrific view over the terminals onto the airfield where planes were taxiing, getting fueled up, and taking off. Against a background roar of automated announcements and a small herd of business travelers were talking earnestly about the PowerPoint presentation they had just seen (they did not like the color scheme, but overall it was good).
When viewed as a moving box-seat with a view, instead of just the transport to the terminal, the SkyTrain becomes perfect place to get a sense of the scale of the airport all the hustle and bustle of the airfield behind the scenes.
Often I’d kill to find a place for some quiet time before the madness of security and long flight. Back in the International terminal, the Berman Meditation Room is exactly the thing. Glassed off in a quiet corner of the airport, with views over the airfield, the lounge has comfortable leather seats and lots of plants. There are even some outlets for a little discreet laptopping. But the room is intended for quiet time. No cell phones, no loud conversations, just a nice place to, say, sit down and plot your next trip.
I parked (although I should have taken BART) and then rode the SkyTrain to the International Terminal. Most of the amenities I had found were in this new(er) terminal which re-opened in 2000. You can start with the wealth of information and maps online at SFOs web site, or stop by any of the terrific information booths on the Departure level in the International Terminal for maps, brochures, and guides.