MIAMI — United Airlines is set open a freshly renovated gate area in San Francisco International Airport’s (SFO) Terminal 3 on Tuesday. The wonderfully appointed 68,800* square foot space is the latest jewel in the airport’s crown.

Construction workers were still placing the finishing touches inside and out as several project stakeholders, including United CEO Jeff Smisek, spoke to the press at a small gathering inside the new terminal on Friday afternoon. Using the new facility standing before him as a peg, Smisek sought to underscore the carrier’s commitment to the Bay Area, stating that the airport “is now, and ever will be, our best hub for routes to Asia”. He added that the carrier had plans to expand to the region, but declined to share details.

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The $138 million overhaul of Terminal 3’s boarding area E turned what had been an otherwise hum-drum concourse into one of the nations top concourses. Floor to ceiling windows and skylights fill the space with natural light. If it seems more spacious than its predecessor – and it does – that would be because it is: the ceilings were raised to twenty-two feet; twelve feet higher than the old terminal. A variety of gate seating options interspersed between dining and retail options give off a neighborhood walk sort of vibe.

That vibe, it turns out, is no accident. Design architect firm Gensler, the same folks responsible for nearby Virgin America Terminal 2, wanted arriving passengers “to feel the minute they stepped off the plane they were in San Francisco.” Dining options such as Dogpatch Bakehouse & Caffe reflect local tastes and values. Retail shoppers will find stores such as Collector, which sells art created by local and regional artists.

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Popular among new terminals is a wealth of upper end shopping, and the new T3 pier E is no exception to the trend. That means McDonald’s won’t be something you find here. Project leaders noted, however, that such concessions have generated a significant uptick in sales, claiming that T2’s upper end offerings bumped roughly 35% over prior stores.

Following in the footsteps of the rest of the airport, which is the only one in the nation to employee its own registered museum director, boarding area E has no shortage of art. Not only does it boast exhibits from its already impressive personal collection, but a handful of exhibits were tailor made to fit the space. Spirogyrate, by Californian artist Eric Staller, provides a dizzying centerpiece to a children’s zone, just as a single example.

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In less noticeable but no less important features, travelers can enjoy a yoga room (the airport’s second), dedicated nursing areas, and interactive map and city displays. Those needing to stay connected can log into the free WiFi and utilize one of 375 power outlets spread throughout the building.

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New gate facilities, ten of them, host a delightful array of seating options ranging from standard to those befitting a more eclectic taste. The gates will be able to handle over fifty flights per day, including three gates specifically outfitted to handle the carrier’s Boeing 767, 777, and 787 wide body aircraft. An estimated 1.9 million people are anticipated to pass through the new space annually.

Once again fitting a theme for San Francisco International, tech in pursuit of environmental stewardship was a priority. A next generation HVAC system reduces energy used to circulate air by 20%, waste distribution systems both passenger facing and behind the scenes, dot the terminal throughout. Even the flooring gets in on the act, having been made of recycled glass, carpet, and wood. The projects aims to earn the coveted LEED Gold designation, and would be the second to do so at the airport.

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It had been closed for construction since the summer of 2012.

The terminal joins a cast of already stellar facilities at the airport, at least by US standards. On the other side of the airport, Virgin America’s Terminal 2 is considered one of the top in the nation. Opened in 2011, the building is most-notable for being the first airport terminal to earn a LEED Gold designation for its sustainability in design and construction. Like UA’s new renovation, the terminal is outfitted with copious amounts of art, upscale dining choices, and traveler friendly amenities. The airport’s two international wings, built in 2000, are also considered among the better in the US and are responsible in part for turning the city into an increasingly popular trans-Pacific gateway.
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On a broader scale, the renovation also comes as airports around the US seek to turn up the heat and compete more effectively with one another, as well as gorgeous new mega-airports around the world. A proper case in point would be SFO’s southerly neighbor, Los Angeles LAX. The airport was once the nation’s gleaming international Pacific port-of-entry, only to see itself fall into a sorry state of shabbiness as funding prevented upgrades and upkeep. The airport began to lose ground to the far nicer SFO for years, which in part led to a decision to build an entirely new international terminal.  The terminal building opened this past summer to wide acclaim.

Though as today’s SFO opening proved, it is not just international concourses receiving some much needed TLC. LAX’s domestic buildings, which both look and feel like they’ve been overused for years, are also receiving substantial renovations. Other airports, which have also been aging poorly, have begun or are in the process of renovating as well. Dallas Love Field, Long Beach, and New York JFK are among the growing chorus of fields with projects underway. Even SFO’s newest addition will be used primarily for domestic operations.

The results of the efforts could not come soon enough. Frequent foreign visitors to the US have long lamented having to visit many of the US’s top hubs. Even many American global travelers will readily admit that many of the nation’s airports are embarrassing by comparison.

Indeed, the contrast in quality between the top US airports and major global hubs is often striking. Airports such as Singapore Changi or Seoul Incheon both regularly receive top awards in the industry. The Gulf region has already impressive Dubai International, and is in the process of building state-of-the-art new airports in Doha and Dubai. Even European airfields, which suffer many of the same obstacles as US airports in terms of airport development and renovation, are widely considered to have an edge with airports such as Amsterdam Schiphol and Frankfurt International.

As US airports begin to finally renovate or rebuild themselves into the present, that gap will hopefully begin to close.