|Many airlines have modified their schedules as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, please consult a flight tracking site such as FlightAware or FlightRadar24 or airline web sites for current flight information.|
Some areas are restricting non-essential activities in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Please ensure that spotting is not temporarily prohibited by a local public health order before heading to the airport.
San Francisco International Airport
|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. Virgin America is also based at SFO. 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.
|Location||San Francisco, California|
|Overview map||Google Maps|
|Approach||134.5 135.65 133.95|
|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
Opened on February 14, 2020, 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 the terrace is open from 7am until 10pm daily. 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.
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 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.
- Airliners.net sample photo: medium large (1R departure, before the fence was built)
- Airliners.net sample photo: medium large (28L arrival)
- Airliners.net 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.
- A Delta 737 making a sharp turn off of 28R, from Cell Phone Lot
- A Virgin Atlantic 747 making a straight out departure, from Cell Phone Lot
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.
- JAL 747 departing 28L shortly after rotation, from San Bruno Ave
- Light trails of departures from the RWY 28's
- Closeup of JAL 747 departing 28L from San Bruno Ave
- Various aircraft waiting for 10, from San Bruno Ave
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 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
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
|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||https://www.united.com/CMS/Documents/pdfs/route-maps/UAL_NA_Map_2016_03_01.pdf|
International Terminal G
|Aer Lingus||Airbus A330-200||Dublin Airport|
|Air Canada||Airbus A319/A320, Boeing 767-300, Embraer 190||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||Airbus A380-800, Airbus A340-600||Frankfurt Main Airport, Munich Airport|
|SAS||Airbus A340-300||Copenhagen Kastrup Airport|
|Singapore Airlines||Airbus A350-900||Singapore Changi Airport|
|Swiss||Airbus A340-300||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||https://www.united.com/CMS/Documents/pdfs/route-maps/UAL_WORLD_Map_2016_03_01.pdf|
- Routes as of January 1, 2016
Facilities and 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.