The best US airport for Aussies to get stuck in

Cheryle and Ernest Chin were anxious about getting home to Australia, and American Airlines wasn't making it easy.

The massage therapist and her real estate developer husband had started out three days earlier in Brazil; they were still thousands of kilometres away, and the shortest flight of their multicontinent odyssey had just been cancelled - San Francisco to Los Angeles.

But for two people on a forced seven-hour layover, the Chins looked remarkably relaxed. Ernest was face-down in a massage chair at the XpresSpa in San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 3, his neck and shoulders being expertly kneaded. Cheryle was admiring her half of a his-and-hers pedicure.

If you have to be marooned at a California airport, San Francisco is the place to be. Free WiFi? Check. Linen-tablecloth restaurants? Check. Meditation centre? Accredited art museum? Showers? Full-service independent bookseller with a children's section, Man Booker Prize winners and shelves of erotica? Yep.

And that was before the flashy new Terminal 2 opened in April, with its slow-food restaurants, broad workstations, nearly 350 electrical outlets for laptops and chargers, and a "recompose area" for getting dressed after the often-stressful security screenings.

For the better part of a generation, Los Angeles International Airport has been hard-pressed to catch up to other major airports and to its smaller, sleeker competitor to the north. Although LAX officials are now doubling the size of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, the airport has lagged painfully behind SFO in critical renovation.

Airports have long been architectural statements, grand municipal gateways that shout "you are here" in steel and glass. Think Berlin's Tempelhof circa 1938, which Hitler called an "air stadium," or nearly anything built in the 1990s - described as the Age of Air Terminals just as the mid-13th century was the Age of Cathedrals.

With Terminal 2, SFO Director John L. Martin hopes to make airport interiors as distinctive as their soaring rooflines. The airport that began in 1927 as a wooden hangar on a dirt road with a lunch room and four cots, today is home to America's newest terminal, filled with natural light, commissioned art, "hydration stations" and ample eco-friendly touches.

"I'd like to think we started a new trend here in Terminal 2," Martin said. "There's a look and feel to the terminal that's akin to a W Hotel, which changed the look and feel of hotel lobbies in a dramatic way. That's what I see SFO moving toward."

SFO's success is all the more remarkable considering its huge Achilles' heel: Because it is perched on the edge of San Francisco Bay, a combination of runway configuration and bad weather place it among the most delay-plagued airports in the country - the worst for arrivals and second-worst for departures after Chicago's Midway International, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

San Francisco unveiled its sparkling international terminal to great fanfare in 2000.

With marble hallways, bright, airy holding areas, and the ability to handle today's massive jets, the new terminal was billed as America's biggest. The first airport-based Gucci boutique in the country was built there, along with a full-scale medical clinic and a meditation center whose compass rose helps the faithful find Mecca. The terminal was key to an important goal: becoming the aviation gateway to Asia.

SFO is proof positive of why it pays for airports to coddle their passengers - particularly international travelers. Happy passengers with lots of options spend more money.

San Francisco is only the 10th busiest airport in the United States, but it vaults to No. 4 in North America based on how much departing passengers spend per capita at airports with international flights. Only John F. Kennedy, Vancouver and Montreal-Trudeau airports make more per so-called enplanement. LAX is 10th on the list.

SFO rakes in $US14.08 per enplanement, according to the 2010 Airport Revenue News Fact Book, compared with $US11.66 at LAX. When duty-free sales to overseas travelers are stripped out, the take drops to $US11.17 and $US8.85 respectively.

But not even fancy amenities are a shield from disaster. Shortly after SFO's international hall opened, "every conceivable problem that hit the industry hit this airport hardest," said Martin, who was hired by SFO out of graduate school in 1981 and became director in 1995.

"I was hit by the dot-com crash, hardest in San Francisco," he said in a recent interview. "Everybody was hit by 9/11, but United (Airlines) filed for bankruptcy shortly afterward and they're 50 percent of my traffic and they cut back a lot. I was hit by SARS" - the virus outbreak that began in China - "because we're such a big Asia destination. Southwest (Airlines) pulled out of the market."

SFO went from an all-time high of 41 million passengers in 2000 to just over 28 million in 2003 - the same year that the airport lost a messy political fight to reconfigure its troublesome runways, which are often hampered by fog, low clouds and rain.

"We do have a delay problem," Martin acknowledged. "We're working on next-generation technologies so we can have landings on the arrival runways even when it's low-cloud conditions."

Technological innovation has aided SFO in the past. It was the first airport in the country to create a commission of local officials to address noise concerns. It has the most extensive video surveillance system in the nation, with 1,400 cameras.

It was the first to have biometric access controls; since 1993, a decade before the Federal Aviation Administration required it, the airport has used a hand geometry recognition system for employees as part of its security measures.

It is among the few facilities nationwide - and the first on the West Coast - to have a rail transit system that deposits passengers and workers at the terminals' front door. In Los Angeles, there are plans to build a light-rail line to LAX - but it will stop far short of the terminals.

"A lot of the new concepts that have been successful in airports have either been started or had early inception at SFO," said Greg Lovett, chief executive of Unique Retreat, which is opening its first high-end "pod" hotel in the country in San Francisco's international terminal. "John Martin is a mini-celebrity within the industry."

Key to SFO's rise from the depths was the arrival of Virgin America, which bills itself as the only California-based airline. With a new jet fleet, a well-dressed young crew and a brash attitude, Virgin was looking for just the right headquarters when it landed at SFO in 2007.

San Francisco's upsides were legion. It's surrounded by what Virgin America Chief Executive David Cush calls "the innovation economy," and elected officials here "step out of the way and let people do their work. Historically that has been less of the case in Los Angeles."

Virgin's arrival brought Southwest back, and enticed a formerly reluctant Jet Blue to set up shop for the first time. Passengers began flowing back to SFO, where they could dine on sustainable Dungeness crab Louie salad and Arctic char at Yankee Pier restaurant, buy a $400 bottle of Hanzell Cabernet Sauvignon at DFS Wine & Cigar, or enjoy an exfoliating papaya mask facial at XpresSpa.

When Terminal 2 opened in April, a $US383-million remodel of a nearly 60-year-old terminal, it strained airport officials' stockpile of superlatives. Greenest! Brightest! Tastiest! Most art-filled! Most food-filled! Most passenger-friendly!

Virgin moved in and so did American. Virgin's inaugural flight brought astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and supermodel Rachel Hunter.

Two days later, there was a culinary tour of airport food. Terminal 2 is home to the Napa Farms Market, a locavore haven a la San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace or Seattle's Pike Place Market, offering Cowgirl Creamery cheese, Equator Coffees & Teas, and Acme Bread.

Even the restrooms are state-of-the-art, with granite countertops, piped-in music and makeup lighting - yes, in the men's rooms too.