SAN FRANCISCO – Let’s face it.  Being a plane spotter in the United States is not easy.  Unlike Europeans with an established tradition of spotting, such activity in the post-9/11 era has been fraught with suspicion (at best) and false arrests (at worst).  

Thanks for the social media movement, being an enthusiast brought recognition and legitimacy to the once misunderstood hobby in the U.S.

San Francisco International (SFO) has been on the forefront embracing plane spotting at the airport.  The airport regularly hosts plane spotting events either at popular plane watching locations or at the employee garage, a location closed to the public for a unique camera angle.  

Photographers participate in a SFO Spotter Meetup event at the employee garage in August 2018 – Photo: Author

Sometimes, spotting events are held in conjunction with a route launch and airlines provide promotional giveaways or make prizes available for drawing.

In February 2017, as a generous gesture of goodwill to the community, SFO opened the old control tower for spotting tours prior to the tower being torn down.  

Continuing its community outreach efforts, SFO opened the first of two new observations decks in early February.  This first location is a 2,997 square foot outdoor terrace at International Terminal G, constructed as a part of that terminal’s $55 million upgrades.  

SFO Spotter Meetup events at the employee garage affords unique angles not normally available – Photo: Author

Located at the end of the G-gates atop gates G99 and G101, the terrace provides a panoramic view of the two gates capable of handling the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747-8.  On either end, views to the Terminal 3 ramp and the engine start point are also possible.

SFO Airport Director Ivar C. Satero said, “our goal is to create an airport experience second to none…this outdoor terrace gives our guests a relaxing oasis within our terminals and invites travelers to rediscover the excitement and magic of air travel.”

Furnished with wooden chairs, tables, and chaise lounges – surrounded with drought-tolerant landscaping and bronze sculptures by local artist Woody Othello – visitors are surrounded by ten-foot bird-safe glass panels that provide wind protection.

This means photography is through the glass only.  On a recent sunny day visit after weeks of rain, this reporter found the glass clean and clear.  With shielding from glare using one’s sleeves or a lens hood, excellent spotting photos can be had using a short zoom lens.  

A visit in the late morning is quite a treat with multiple United widebodies on a departure push. As soon as aircraft vacated their gate, more aircraft were immediately towed in their place for the early afternoon departure bank.  

Before the old control tower was torn down in 2017, SFO hosted a special spotter event there.  Enthusiasts were taken there in small groups and were given a rare opportunity to see and experience a control tower – Photo: Author.

The Terminal G observation deck is behind security check and hence is available only to those with a boarding pass.  

Terminal G is also accessible from Terminal 3 via a secure connector behind security check, so if you are flying on an United domestic flight at SFO, this facility is also available to you (so allow extra time on your next flight!).  

The terrace is located above gates G99 and G101, behind Joe & The Juice.  It is open from 7:00 am to 11:30 pm daily. Food and drinks may be brought in but smoking is not allowed.

For spotters without a boarding pass – don’t fret.  A second observation deck, located before security check and open to non-travelers, is scheduled to open in October 2019 at Terminal 2, near the site of the former control tower.  

It is refreshing to see SFO being progressive meeting the desires of the aviation enthusiast.  Now us enthusiasts need other airports to follow SFO’s model.