Published in July 2016 issue
Long disparaged as San Francisco’s poor cousin, the city of Oakland is going through a renaissance of sorts, its image shifting from gritty to hip. And, along with the city, Oakland International Airport (OAK) is throwing aside its reputation as a second-class airport against the much larger San Francisco International (SFO), which sits just 6.5 miles (10.5km) across the Bay. But it wasn’t always this way. In the first half of the 20th century, Oakland Airport was the place to go and to be seen. The airport has a long and fascinating history.
By Ken Donohue
The story goes back to the 1920s, when demand for both passenger and mail service was growing in the East Bay. The City of Oakland secured a large parcel of land on Bay Farm Island for an airport. It was an ideal location—just six miles from Oakland, yet isolated enough to be away from residential areas. There would be ample room for expansion and not too much of the low-level fog that tends to blanket the San Francisco side of the Bay.
In 1927, the city handed over development and operation of the airport to the newly formed Port of Oakland, which operates it to this day. It took just three weeks to construct the 7,000ft (2,130m) runway. The strip was unusually long for the time, and would be the thing that would put Oakland on the map and draw the biggest names in global aviation.
In June 1927, the Army Air Service used Oakland’s new runway to make the first air crossing of the Pacific from California to Hawaii using a Fokker C-2 aircraft. That trip took nearly 26 hours; today, the flying time is of just over five, and two carriers offer flights from Oakland to four Hawaiian Islands.
In 1928, another first was made from Oakland, when Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith completed the first flight between North America and Australia, by way of Hawaii and Fiji. And Amelia Earhart was no stranger to OAK, having flown into the airport a few times, including landing there at the end of the first solo flight from Hawaii.
By 1940, the airport had grown to 890 acres (360ha) with five hangars, an administration building, and a hotel that, when opened, in 1929, was widely advertised as the first airport hotel in the US.
The first scheduled airlines to use Oakland were Boeing Air Transport and Pacific Air Transport. The former had the mail contract between the Bay Area and Chicago, while the latter flew the mail route between San Diego and Seattle. With these services, Oakland became one of the most important airports in the country, growing rapidly from 4,000 passengers in 1929 to more than 90,000 a decade later.
However, in the early 1940s, Oakland’s status as the region’s go-to airport was beginning to dwindle. In 1940, United Air Lines moved its administrative and maintenance operations from Oakland to San Francisco’s Mills Field Airport, which eventually became the San Francisco International Airport we know today.
Heading into the Second World War, Oakland Municipal Airport was experiencing mounting passenger volumes alongside a steady growth in military aviation. As the war gained momentum in the Pacific, Oakland became an important staging area for aircraft and supplies. And, in 1943, as the airport became a marshaling point for aircraft bound for US forces in the Pacific, it dramatically curtailed commercial operations. Those flights were diverted to San Francisco. That’s where they flew in and out for the duration of the war, giving SFO most of the market share during the postwar boom in air travel.
After the war, Oakland worked to rebuild its commercial reputation and seized an opportunity in providing strong support to non-scheduled carriers. These charter airlines took advantage of the surplus of aircraft remaining at the war’s end and put them to use carrying passengers and hauling cargo. Many of the biggest names in the charter airline industry, such as World Airways, maintained operations at Oakland.
Meanwhile, Oakland fought to gain passenger routes from the Civil Aeronautics Board to match demand from the rapidly growing East Bay population, by now the largest in the Bay Area. Despite this, passenger volumes at Oakland would forever lag behind those at San Francisco.
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MODERN TIMES ARRIVE
In 1962, the newly renamed Metropolitan Oakland International Airport inaugurated a new passenger terminal and a 10,000ft (3,050m) runway that extended on reclaimed land into San Francisco Bay. A major milestone in the community, more than 100,000 people came to the opening. By the end of the 1960s, the airport was handling more than a million passengers annually.
Further expansion occurred in 1985 with the opening of a second terminal, now exclusively used by Southwest Airlines (WN). The original airport, now known as North Field, is still being used for General Aviation.
Oakland saw steady growth through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, peaking in 2007, when more than 14 million passengers traveled through.
However, shockingly, just a year later, the airport saw three million fewer passengers.
“There were a combination of things that led to this significant decline in traffic,” said John Albrecht, the airport’s Aviation Marketing Manager. “This was the time when Virgin America (VX) (Airways, June 2014) came along and based themselves at San Francisco, siphoning off a lot of traffic from Oakland. And in 2008, America Trans Air (TZ), Aloha (AQ), and Skybus (SX) went out of business. We were the only airport in the region that had service from all three of those carriers. It wasn’t that people weren’t flying, but the traffic shifted.”
The Bay Area is somewhat unique in that three major airports—San Jose (SJC), Oakland, and San Francisco—although being in close proximity, are controlled by three different political entities. While the airports do cooperate informally, airport planning in the region is a challenge.
The cities of Oakland and San Francisco have long been locked in a rivalry, but Albrecht rejects the idea that Oakland Airport’s success should come at the expense of San Francisco’s. “We’re friends with SFO, and when both airports do well, the región does well,” he said.
Over the past 25 years, traffic patterns at OAK have swung like a pendulum, Albrecht noted. Traffic grew at Oakland and then fell off, because the buildups weren’t usually sustainable. For example, United once operated 50 flights a day from OAK. Combined, airlines were offering 42 flights a day to Los Angeles. Southwest alone was leaving every 30 minutes.
Far from being resentful of San Francisco’s success, Oakland knows it has one advantage— convenience. “Passengers are footsteps to their flight, with ample parking in front of the terminals,” said Albrecht. “The Bay to Basin [Los Angeles] has always been the bread and butter for the airlines, and we can still offer the convenience factor for passengers wanting to fly to Los Angeles for the day and be back home in the evening.”
The weather, too, is better in Oakland, making airport operations more reliable. While fog in San Francisco can cause delays and diversions, making it one of the worst airports in the US for weather related delays, this is rarely an issue at Oakland. “OAK has the best aeronautical reliability in the Bay Area,” said Albrecht. “We’re a 24/7 airport that is centrally located amidst a population of 7.5 million, and we’re known as the sunny side of the San Francisco Bay.”
Oakland has a lot going for it, and some airlines are taking notice. Southwest serves all three Bay area airports, but has its largest base at OAK, with more than 2,400 Oakland based employees and operating 121 outgoing flights each day. The airline recently started service from Oakland to Reno (RNO), Long Beach (LGB), and St. Louis (STL).
The airport is working to bolster the number of international destinations served. “This is our priority,” said Albrecht. “Volaris (Y4) started here with one destination in Mexico, now they serve five. And Norwegian (DY) has been a big success, with very high loads almost immediately.”
Albrecht told Airways that, if a high-quality flight is offered, the market will respond—and not just the local community. People from the Silicon Valley, near San Jose, are driving to Oakland to take advantage of these flights. From northern California, the only services to Stockholm (ARN) and Oslo (OSL) depart from Oakland.
“Norwegian’s Premium cabin is often full,” says Albrecht. “And the flight to Oslo continues on to Bangkok (BKK), providing a fairly convenient option for those wanting to travel from the Bay area to Thailand.” Norwegian is expanding its offerings out of OAK with a new service to London Gatwick (LGW). Portugal’s Azores Airlines (S4) introduced a seasonal service to Oakland last year to serve a significant, if little-noticed, Portuguese and Azorian diáspora living in the Bay area.With increasing passenger numbers, Oakland is served by 17 airline brands, offering flights to over 50 destinations. Seven of those airlines operate exclusively to OAK as their gateway to the San Francisco Bay region.
Is Oakland positioning itself as an airport solely for low-cost carriers? Albrecht says that’s not the case. “This is not what we are working toward,” he insisted. “There are a group of successful and profitable airlines that have decided to fly to the Bay Area and have chosen Oakland. All kinds of airlines can come to Oakland and make money.”
Some of that inter-city rivalry surfaced when Albrecht noted that San Francisco has more lowcost seats, and asked: “Why does SFO have 41 flights a day to New York, and we have just five flights a week? The biggest challenge for us is to maintain our value proposition of convenience and reliability, while we continue to grow. Many people don’t know that Oakland is closer to downtown San Francisco than SFO.”
Forty percent of Bay Area residents live closer to OAK, and the airport wants to work to keep these people from flying out of San Francisco. Several large companies are headquartered in nearby Contra Costa County, Albrecht noted.
The airport would like to be able to offer service to the top 50 origin and destination (O&D) cities from the Bay Area. OAK is only missing seven cities on the list: Vancouver (YVR), Calgary (YYC), Toronto (YYZ), Hong Kong (HKK), London (LHR/LGW), Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (CSL), and Puerto Vallarta (PVR).
While it may not be the area’s largest passenger airport, cargo is king at Oakland. The airport holds the number one position in the Bay Area, handling half of the region’s air cargo. FedEx has established its Asia-Pacific hub at the airport, and UPS operates a secondary cargo hub there.
OAK is taking steps to ensure that its infrastructure matches its ambitions of becoming the passengers’ airport of choice. Currently, the airport has just four international gates (two jetways and two hard stands), so it is beginning a $35 million expansion to add screening areas and amenities for international passengers, including more duty-free shopping. “We want to offer the amenities associated with a large airport,” says Albrecht, “but we want to balance that with the human scale, ease, and convenience we have here, that passengers tell us they really appreciate.”
Construction on the project will begin shortly, with completion expected in summer 2017. While no gates will be added, the renovations will allow for simultaneous wide-body airliner operations, eight additional jetways, and a second baggage carousel for incoming international passengers. The project will also improve the space through the customs and immigration inspection áreas and allow for more natural light to come into the terminal.
Oakland will never be San Francisco, and that’s okay with the locals. The airport doesn’t aspire to be the massive international gateway that SFO is. For Oakland, smaller is better as it strives to provide a reliable and convenient experience for passengers and airline partners alike.
“Oakland has a lot to offer, and is hugely underestimated,” Albrecht said. “But that’s starting to change. The city is emerging as a hot area, with authentic experiences that a lot of visitors are looking for.”
If you give it a chance, Oakland might just surprise you.