San Francisco International Airport

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Continent: North America Country: United States Region: California

San Francisco International Airport is an international airport located in Northern California. It is located 13 miles south of San Francisco near the cities of San Bruno and Millbrae. It is a hub for United Airlines and is their gateway to Asia. It is the largest airport in Northern California and the second busiest airport in California, after Los Angeles International Airport. It features 4 runways, configured in pairs, perpendicularly.

San Francisco
International Airport
Location San Francisco, California
Airport type Commercial
Overview map Google Maps
Tower 120.5 269.1
Ground 121.8
Clearance 118.2
Approach 134.5 135.65 133.95
Departure120.9 (NW-E)
135.1 (SE-W)
Plane Spotting Hotels guide

Official Spotting Locations

International Terminal G Observation Terrace

In February 2019, an outdoor observation terrace opened at the end of Concourse G of the International Terminal. It is airside and easily accessible to passengers flying out of that concourse as well as Terminal 3. Passengers with a same day boarding pass for a flight from another terminal should be able to access the terrace as well, though it will require clearing security a second time to reach the gate for the departing flight. Open daily from 7:00am to 11:30pm.

The terrace located at the end of the concourse, atop the boarding lounges for gates G99 and G101. It also provides a good view of aircraft as they enter and exit the ramp for Concourse G and odd-numbered gates 81-89 in Terminal 3. The entrance is next to Joe & The Juice. Be aware that you will be shooting through glass if you're taking photos.

Terminal 2 SkyTerrace

This observation deck atop Terminal 2 is landside and open to the public with no boarding pass required. The terrace offers close views of the 10/28 runways, which in normal weather are used for most arrivals as well as heavy departures. the 1/19 runways are also visible. The entrance is behind the Starbucks in Terminal 2. Access is up two floors via staircase or a dedicated elevator. A security screening is required to access the terrace, but TSA restrictions on liquids don't apply.

For Winter 2021/2022, the SkyTerrace is open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from 10am until 6pm.

For more information, see

Aviation Library

The San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum is within International Terminal A. It is open daily from 10am to 4:30pm except Saturday. Their collection is surprisingly extensive, though not all of it is on display. It's worth stopping in if you're there when it's open. Also, temporary rolling exhibitions exist security within the International Terminal as well as air-side Terminal 2 and 3. Public art from the San Francisco Arts Commission is on display throughout the terminals.

Other Spotting Locations

Bayfront Park

Bayfront Park is located at the end of Millbrae Ave. along Bayshore Hwy. It affords good views of all four runways, but it is somewhat distant (about one mile) from 10R/28L and 10L/28R, so you'll need a long lens for photos (about 700mm to get close to regional jets, 450mm should be good for the heavies). 1R/19L and 1R/19R are closer, however, a chain link fence was recently built next to the runways that limits photography.

  • sample photo: medium large (1R departure, before the fence was built)
  • sample photo: medium large (28L arrival)
  • sample photo: medium large (Another 28 arrival)

To reach the park, take the Millbrae Ave. exit off US-101, and head north-east, towards the bay. At the end of Millbrae Ave., make a right turn. You will see the park on your left; the first left turn you can make takes you into the park's small, free parking lot. The large, divided section of the lot is a pay lot for the Marriott Hotel. There is alternate free parking across the street at the Westin, though it is only a few spaces (turn into the Westin parking lot, and take an immediate left before the lobby circle). If all else fails, you can park nearly anywhere on the side-streets.

Once you have parked your car, you may want to walk towards the airport to the north end of the park for good views of 1L/19R and 1R/19L. If your objective is to watch 10R/28L and 10L/28R, you can go pretty much wherever you like in the park. If you want the San Francisco skyline in your photos, try walking south on the Bay Trail beyond the Marriott; at least 400mm (1.6x crop factor) will be required to get good skyline photos.

If you are traveling by BART or Caltrain, get off at Millbrae Station and walk east approximately one mile on Millbrae Ave (about 15 minutes walk). Use the south side of the street, as the north side has no sidewalk across the US-101 over-crossing; be cautious of traffic, this is not a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

New Long Term Parking

The new long term parking lot (operated by SFO) is near the north end of 10/28. It offers good side views of heavy departures off the 28's. As you will be facing southwest, the lighting is best in the morning. This location is a long distance from the rotation point, but heavy aircraft will be very close when they're putting their gear up. With good binoculars or telephoto, it also offers a good overview of the north side of the airfield, including the United maintenance hangars and the cargo ramp.

Although the roof is covered in security cameras, the turret-style stairway is notably lacking. Being chased away by security in this blind spot is rare. If you feel guilty, park in the lot and pay the fee -- it is only a few dollars for an afternoon.

If you are traveling by air or BART, go to the arrivals level at SFO and board a free SFO long term parking bus. They run at a five minute frequency and they will drop you off right where you need to be. Use the same bus to return.

Cell Phone Lot

The cell phone Lot is located near the new Long Term Parking garage and directly under the path for 28R. It is slightly closer to the runways, and it is free to park in. The only downside is that you must stay with your vehicle and you may only park there for an hour. Here are the official rules for the cell phone lot. You will not be able to see airport operations from here, due to the fact that it is not raised like the long term parking garage. You will, though, be able to get good shots of aircraft just after rotation, as they are putting their gear up. If the Shoreline Seven departure is in use, aircraft will make a sharp right turn over the lot and it will make for good photos. 200mm with a 1.6x crop factor will be sufficient for this spot.

San Bruno Ave Overpass

Between McDonnell Road and San Bruno Ave, immediately east of US-101, there is a small grassy area that is well-positioned at the end of 10L/28R. This is the longest runway at SFO, so in good weather, it is the first choice for departing large aircraft. When 28R is in use, aircraft will pass very low above this spot; when 10L is in use (generally only in marginal weather), this spot has a good view of aircraft as they wait for the runway. Runway 28L/10R is also visible, but is significantly obstructed by the rental car facility and the end of AirTrain.

Unfortunately this location is almost nearly spoiled for the good photography because of numerous fences and light poles. You can still get some good shots, with effort. Note that because there is a lot of traffic in this area, you will be seeing through a lot of jetwash. Anything more than about 500mm will be useless because of air quality.

If you are traveling by car, take US-101 to the San Bruno Ave exit, go west of the freeway, and park on the street in the residential neighborhood, then walk over the freeway.

If you are arriving by air or BART, take the free SFO long term parking bus from the arrivals (upper) level at SFO, get off at long term parking (see above), and walk south on Airport Blvd to San Bruno Ave, then west to the freeway overpass (overall about 15 minutes). Alternatively, take AirTrain (Blue line) to the rental car center and walk north to the overpass (see map); this path is seemingly easier but takes just as long as long term parking due to various fences you have to walk around. On the upside, you get to see the Internation G and cargo ramps from AirTrain.

Within the airport

Various locations within the airport, but outside security, offer reasonable views:

Parking Garage G -- 28 departures, and some ramp / taxiway A views. Take AirTrain to Garage G/BART and take the elevator up to parking level 9. You will not have warning of RWY 28 departures, but you will be able to see them just after rotation -- bring a radio!

Parking Garage A -- Good shots of the west ramp of International Terminal A

AirTrain station at the rental car facility (blue line) -- Very good views of runway 10 arrivals on bad weather days; however the windows are often very dirty.

AirTrain approaching terminal 1 -- View of aircraft at the International A gates (Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Emirates, etc).

AirTrain Blue Line, between International G and West Field Road -- Views toward International G / United gates, and some parts of the cargo ramp (DHL, FedEx).

Terminal 2 Air Train stop -- Good rotation shots of the 28s, although there will be no warning-bring a scanner. At each end of the stop there is an opening so you do not have to shoot through glass. The opening on the north side of the station gives good shots of rotation and the SFO water towers. The south side will give shots of the thresholds of the 28s (with a long lens), the beginning of the 1s, and Terminal 2 ramp shots.

Fisherman's Park

Fisherman's Park is a small area on the coast of the bay under the 28 approach path. The so-called "park" is really a gravel parking lot with small area by the water, used regularly by fishermen. This location is very similar to the popular Coyote Point Recreation Area location; the only differences being it is slightly closer to the threshold, but slightly farther south of the approach path. It is located on Airport Blvd. in Burlingame. A 400mm lens (full frame) will be more than sufficient for heavies, but a longer lens is needed for regionals. It is not the best area at mid-day times, due to the fact that you are shooting above you, but mornings and afternoons will yield great photos.

Locations to Avoid

Obviously, do not loiter on streets within the airport grounds -- you will be stopped and questioned. Occasionally police may interfere at San Bruno Ave and Garage G, but it has never been severe. Also some reports of being harassed in the Signature FBO area, even if you have real business there. Be discreet.

Spotting Locations Map

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Regular Traffic

Normal traffic flow has most departures using runways 1L/1R and arrivals using 28L/28R. European and trans-Pacific depart 28L/28R.

During times of winds out of the south or southeast, arrivals use 19R while departures use 10L/10R. When the crosswind component for 10L/R exceeds 20kts, departures use 19L/R. This is most often during rainy winter weather, but also occurs on the day just after rainy weather.

Occasionally during strong northerly winds, aircraft will fly the approach to 28L/R and circle to 1R. This happens approximately twice a year, so don't hold out hope.

International Terminal A

Airline Aircraft Destinations
Aeroméxico Boeing 737-800 Mexico City Airport, Guadalajara Airport
Air Canada Airbus A319/A320, Boeing 767-300 Toronto Pearson International Airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
Air Canada Rouge Airbus A319 Vancouver International Airport
Air France Airbus A380-800 (seasonal), Boeing 777-200/300 (seasonal) Paris Charles de Gaulle International Airport
Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-700, Boeing 737-800, Boeing 737-900 Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Portland International Airport, Salt Lake City International Airport, Palm Springs International Airport, Los Cabos International Airport, Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport
Asiana Airlines Airbus A350-900 Incheon International Airport
Avianca Airbus A319/A320 El Salvador Intl.
British Airways Airbus A380-800, Boeing 777-200 London Heathrow Airport
Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300 Hong Kong Airport
China Airlines Boeing 777-300 Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport
China Eastern Boeing 777-300 Shanghai Airport
China Southern Boeing 787-8 Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport
Emirates Airbus A380-800 Dubai International Airport
Etihad Airways Boeing 777-200 Abu Dhabi
Fiji Airways Airbus A330-200 Nadi International Airport
Hawaiian Airlines Airbus A321neo, Boeing 787-9 Honolulu International Airport, Kahului Airport
Hong Kong Airlines Airbus A350-900 Hong Kong Airport
Iberia Airbus A330-200 Madrid Barajas Airport
Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300 Tokyo Haneda Airport
jetBlue Airbus A320, Airbus A321 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Long Beach Airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Logan International Airport, New York John F. Kennedy International Airport
KLM Boeing 777-300, Boeing 787-9 Amsterdam Schiphol Airport
Korean Air Boeing 777-300 Incheon International Airport
Philippine Airlines Boeing 777-300 Ninoy Aquino International Airport
Qantas Boeing 787-9 Sydney Airport
Sun Country Airlines Boeing 737-800 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9, Airbus A340-600, Airbus A330-300 London Heathrow Airport, Manchester Airport
WestJet Boeing 737-800 Vancouver International Airport, Calgary International Airport
XL Airways France Airbus A330-200 Paris Charles de Gaulle International Airport(Seasonal)

Terminal 1

Airline Aircraft Destinations
Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-800, Boeing 757-200, Boeing 757-300, Boeing 767-300, Airbus A320 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Detroit Metro Airport, Honolulu International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, New York John F. Kennedy International Airport, Salt Lake City International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport,
Frontier Airbus A320, Airbus A321 Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700, Boeing 737-800 Los Angeles International Airport, Bob Hope Airport, John Wayne-Orange County Airport, San Diego International Airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Denver International Airport, Dallas Love Field Airport, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, Chicago Midway International Airport, Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport

Terminal 2

Airline Aircraft Destinations
American Airlines Airbus A321, Boeing 737-800, Boeing 767-300 Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Miami International Airport, New York John F. Kennedy International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

¹Seasonal Service

Terminal 3

Airline Aircraft Destinations
United Airlines Airbus A319, Airbus A320, Boeing 737-700, Boeing 737-800, Boeing 737-900, Boeing 747-400, Boeing 757-200, Boeing 757-300, Boeing 767-400, Boeing 777-200, Boeing 787-8, United 787-9

International Terminal G

Airline Aircraft Destinations
Aer Lingus Airbus A330-200 Dublin Airport
Air Canada Airbus A319/A320, Boeing 767-300 Toronto Pearson International Airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
Air China Boeing 747-8i Beijing Capital Airport
Air India Boeing 777-200 Indira Gandhi International Airport
Air New Zealand Boeing 777-200/777-300 Auckland Airport
ANA Boeing 777-300 Tokyo Narita Airport
Copa Airlines Boeing 737-800 Tocumen Intl.
EVA Air Boeing 777-300 Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport
Lufthansa Boeing 747-8i, Airbus A350-900 Frankfurt Main Airport, Munich Airport
SAS Airbus A350-900 Copenhagen Kastrup Airport
Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900 Singapore Changi Airport
Swiss Boeing 777-300 Zurich Airport
Turkish Airlines Boeing 777-300 Atatürk International Airport
United Airlines Airbus A320, Boeing 747-400, Boeing 767-300, Boeing 777-200, Boeing 787-8, Boeing 787-9
  • Routes as of January 1, 2016

Facilities and Transportation

Public Transportation

The BART rapid transit rail system maintains a station at the terminals, and provides service to San Francisco and cities in the East Bay. It also provides connections to Caltrain commuter rail service to San Jose and Gilroy via the Millbrae Station.

Three samTrans bus routes serve the airport terminals. Route 292 serves a route from San Mateo to downtown San Francisco. Route 397 and Express Route KX serve a route from Palo Alto to downtown San Francisco.

The Airport Express provides transportation to Sonoma County, including Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and Santa Rosa.

The Marin Airporter provides transportation to multiple locations in Marin County including San Rafael, Mill Valley, and Sausalito.

External Links