San Francisco Takes On LAX: Connect Here, We’re Better

I get press releases all day long from travel providers, and 99% of the time I spare you, my readers, from having to hear about them. They usually read something like, “New survey research discovers that X% of travelers say they want to get away for Y holiday, and Z is a great place to [Book Your Travel Online / Stay for a Romantic-Exciting-Fun Time / Waste Large Amounts of Your Hard Earned Dollars]”

And on occasion when I reply to the PR hacks with a legitimate question, even just searching for how in the world there’s something to write about, I don’t hear back. Most PR firms send out press releases hoping something’ll stick but don’t know enough about what they’re pitching to speak intelligently about it, or they’re too lazy to do the legwork to answer real questions.

The result is most of the time I don’t bother replying, or even opening pitch emails.

But I did get a fairly interesting one recently, from someone promoting San Francisco International Airport.

Ok, it’s not miles and points and deals and luxury travel. More airline transport biz, the kind of thing that Cranky Flier writes about.

But it was still kind of interesting.

SFO wants travelers from Australia and New Zealand to connect in San Francisco — rather than LAX — and they’re puttin’ the smack down.

They’re not quite on the money, they’re saying it’s LAX or San Francisco because

Remember, travelers from Down Under *have* to connect in California when going to the US.

Of course that’s not quite true — it’s perfectly reasonable to connect in Vancouver, and Air Canada’s Sydney flight is timed quite well for US connections not to mention Air Canada offers a very nice business class product. The Air New Zealand Vancouver flight isn’t great for heading East since it doesn’t arrive most of the time until almost 2pm. But it’s not an unreasonable option for Western US connections. And there’s always connecting in Honolulu.

But certainly the major connecting point decision from Australia for sure is LAX vs SFO.

Apparently, most of the San Francisco traffic is origin/destination and connecting traffic tends to push through LAX. They tell me that only 10% of Qantas passengers flying to San Francisco connect onward, compared to 25% of Qantas passengers flying to Los Angeles. (Perhaps that’s because of Qantas partner American’s substantial presence at LAX, there’s not a ton of oneworld service ex-SFO.)

San Francisco wants to raise their profile for connections. And they’re calling the campaign
“I Wanna Go Through SFO.”

Their arguments about why it’s a better place to connect are twofold:

  • SFO’s terminals are under one roof
  • Customs facility can process 5,000 passports an hour.

I was intrigued by the comment about the SFO customs facility, but don’t really have the context to evaluate the claim. So I pushed back a bit — there’s no comparison here — is San Francisco better than LAX in this regard?

They shot back that LAX is capable of processing “upwards of 20,000 passengers per day” which is less than SFO.

Anecdotally, first out of the shoot usually flying in premium cabins, and even when landing behind several other international flights, the only especially long queuing I’ve ever faced has been at Washington-Dulles, Miami, and New York-JFK. Have any of y’all out there found it easier/harder/longer/shorter to process through SFO than LAX?

Now, the “all under one roof” argument is to me quite persuasive. I hate LAX. It’s a pit. The Tom Bradley terminal, I always thought, was designed to make travelers coming from the far reaches of the world feel at home, even if they come from a country with a corrupt government and per capita GDP of less than US$5000. And to make passengers arriving from Asia feel superior. Perhaps as some sort of international trade marketing strategy. Terminal 3 is pretty ghetto, too. And while I don’t mind walking between adjacent terminals, e.g. arriving terminal 4 Qantas and walking outside to terminal 3 Alaska, going from the Tom Bradley terminal to United is a nightmare.

San Francisco used to be a pain going from domestic to international, waiting for the bus to take you across, but now that everything’s connected it’s a pleasure. It even means that United domestic Premier Executive-and-higher members can walk across to the international terminal and use Singapore’s SilverKris lounge during times that correspond to Singapore flights. (Because it’s a Star Gold lounge, they accept all Star Golds flying same-day .. not just international passengers.. so travelers who can’t use the United lounge can use the Singapore one, and while Spartan by Singapore standards is much better than a Red Carpet Club). LAX has no such option, since the Air New Zealand lounge in terminal 2 is rather hard to access without a ticket for a carrier served from that terminal.

Still, Qantas-American connections at LAX aren’t bad. And United-United is pretty good. Air New Zealand – anything domestic at LAX is a pain. And Tom Bradley – Anything, which you won’t experience arriving from Australia or New Zealand (unless coming in on Air Tahiti Nui, Air Pacific, or arriving via Asia!), is awful.

No question San Francisco is aesthetically nicer. And not as much of a pain going from terminal to terminal.

But Qantas doesn’t have the substantial alliance presence at San Francisco, so Qantas passengers are likely to prefer Los Angeles to earn or redeem miles. Though if they don’t mind interlining across alliances, and changing to say a United flight, San Francisco is reasonable.

But… those darn SFO runways, only 750 feet apart, a little bit of wind off the Bay and you’ve got major traffic delays. The San Francisco marketing folks concede that LAX has better on-time performance. And that matters more to most travelers than avoiding the LAX intra-terminal buses.

Me? I’m interested in which flights are easier to upgrade. On United I’ve always found LAX to be the easier station, United has a greater lock over the Bay Area and there’s always seemed a greater concentration of 1K members there. So my bets have been on clearing through LAX.

If I were a Qantas passenger I’d be more torn.

Qantas has a Boeing 747 a day Sydney – San Francisco, and both a 747 and A380 to Los Angeles plus the Brisbane and Melbourne – Los Angeles flight. There’s a whole lot more premium seats on Qantas from Australia to Los Angeles, so that’s great if you’re looking for upgrades. But there’s a reason there are so many more premium seats, there are more passengers flowing through Los Angeles both as a destination and connecting to American. So I’d be really interested in the upgrade experiences of San Francisco vs. Los Angeles passengers.

Hit the comments: LAX or SFO?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. SFO.

    The transfers at SFO have always been much easier and I definitely agree that customs and immigration has been faster. Plus, having two RCC lounges is nice (one domestic, one international), and, as you’ve mentioned, the SilverKris lounge is excellent, especially for long layovers.

    For me, LAX has always been hell. Transfers have been harder, customs and immigration has taken longer. And finding a free seat at a lounge is near impossible during peak hours.

    But I might be a bit jaded since up until a couple months ago, SFO was my home airport…

  2. I’m from SF but am currently UK-based so I’ve had a lot of international arrivals at SFO, and it is still the only US airport where I have never experienced a wait of more than 5-10 minutes at immigration. Meanwhile one of the two times I’ve done LAX, the line took over an hour. (This is all as a US citizen. I can’t speak to the non-citizen lines.)

    My guess would be that SFO has fewer international arrivals and therefore you are less likely to have landed just after a few other flights with passengers still at immigration.

    Combine that with the much nicer facilities at SFO, and I would choose SFO if all else were equal. But I agree that connection times, price, and upgrade availability are likely much more important criteria.

  3. While not a down under option, when going to Asia, I choose PDX and SEA first and LAX last.

    SFO is much nicer over LAX. As you point out Tom Bradley terminal is horrible – reminds me of the old Detroit international days.

  4. SFO is great to go through for clearing customs as Sco notes due to the very short wait times. By the time you clear customs, your bags from the plane usually start arriving on the carousel. SFO is a nice contrast to clearing customs and flights connecting at IAD which has too many arriving flights and insufficient staff making for long waits.

  5. SFO. But keep in mind that the ‘connector bridge’ is only for T3-INTL G. Try connecting from AA to CX in SFO without leaving security… You can’t. And there’s no premium security line for Intl A. That sure classes up the CX F experience.

  6. I generally clear in EWR, coming from LHR or AMS. Experience there runs from tolerable to terrible.

    In Jan I went from LHR to SFO. (3 cheers for E+ on UA). SFO customs was a joy compared to EWR.

    I’ve only flown domestically from LAX, about 1x/month in my USAIr gold days. Like many others, I hate that place.

  7. @Ripper3785 — last I checked, there is no premium/elite security line at either side of the international terminal. I frequently use the “G” side when I am flying UA domestic since it tends to be faster (especially at times when the domestic elite line is closed).

    Only really connected a few times in LAX, always from Europe. Was a terrible experience. Especially that one time where I arrived somewhere at the UA terminal, then get on a bus to Bradley for customs/immigration, then had to find my way back to the appropriate UA terminal for our connecting flight.

  8. I travel use LAX, SFO, YVR and HNL (in that order of frequency) travelling to and from Australia and New Zealand.

    As you point out, there are no ideal transfer points. If we had the connectivity, lack of weather issues and generally better airline lounges of LAX with the simpler terminal, and reduced immigration & security hassles of SFO, that would be ideal.

  9. I vote for SFO. I’ve been there several times for both international and domestic travels, with satisfactory every time.
    I’ve only been to LAX for two times. LAX is not so bad, but not comparable with SFO.

  10. but isn’t there a Pink’s hot dogs at LAX Bradley terminal with shorter lines than the original Pinks in Hollywood?

  11. Flew to Australia 3 times last year, twice through LAX. I found it easier to upgrade through LAX vs. SFO, but hands down SFO beats LAX with the time clearing customs (no checked luggage) and out the door.

  12. LAX is my choice flying UA from SYD, even though most of my trips take me to or through SFO. As you point out, at LAX. there are fewer 1Ks to compete with for upgrades. But also, staff at LAX are nicer (especially in the RCC), and the LAX-based crew are much more customer focused than their SFO counterparts.

    I agree that LAX does have it’s drawbacks; I still can’t understand why when clearing Customs at T7 and connecting to a domestic UA flight, also located at T7, do I have to exit the secure area of the terminal? I’m dumped onto the sidewalk, only to join the security line with LAX-departing pax. Why not provide an internal link just like SFO?

    The other downside with LAX for UA customers is that T7 Customs operates only in the morning. Once, my UA flight from Asia was delayed and even though we parked at Gate 74, passengers were ferried to Tom Bradley for immigration processing. We then had to make our way back to T7 for connecting flights. That was not a nice experience.

    Still, I’ll continue to choose LAX over SFO. Plus, SYD-LAX-SFO earns more miles than SYD-SFO. 😉

  13. Don’t forget QF also has LAX-AKL service plus 747 service from JFK.

    If I were a Qantas flyer, I’d connect in LAX.

    I also choose LAX over SFO for UA because of the upgrades, though my last SFO-SYD flight went out with open seats in C.

  14. @Latitudes — there is no “internal link” from international arrives to domestic departures at SFO that lets you avoid clearing security again after customs. The connection is only for passengers arriving on UA domestic (and whatever else might arrive into Terminal 3 — AC and AA?) and connecting to an outbound international flight from the “G” side of the international terminal.

  15. and bear in mind, coming from Sydney as I do, flying into SFO over LAX saves you about 45 mins of flying given the curvature of the earth.

  16. shhhhh… this will only lead to the SFO immigration lines getting longer. I like going from plane to street in 10 minutes.

    My message to you: SFO = foggy, windy weather delays. Mark Twain – “The coldest winter blah blah blah” 🙂

  17. SFO for sure. It’s so much nicer, and if you are delayed, the food is way better. The international terminal is the nicest, but their other terminal is fine also. I also find baggage there way faster than LAX.

  18. Well, none of the employees speak English in either terminal… SO who really cares as far as customer service!

  19. LAX is dreadful all around. No train service, disconnected disaster layout of terminals, poor restaurant choices, and downright chaos. I’d choose SFO any day.

  20. @Latitudes – same thing applies to Air NZ passengers flying between London Heathrow and Auckland on NZ 1/2. This is a same aircraft flight with transit in Los Angeles. While most passengers are kept in a secure holding pen airside (but still need to complete immigration and security), those in business class have the option of using the very nice Air NZ lounge. Unfortunately this requires clearing regular immigration, customs, pre-security and security queues plus a bit of a walk (from base of terminal to the stairs down to immigration at the other end, then back along the length of terminal, up one level at the entrance and back into the middle of the terminal again).

  21. @ Oliver – My bad. Whenever I’ve arrived at SFO from an international flight I’ve always turned right after clearing Customs and headed for BART. I’d assumed that passengers connecting to domestic flights, who turn left after clearing Customs, went straight into the secure area of the domestic terminal. If the screening area is just for connecting passengers, there would be less traffic and hassle than having to exit curbside and re-screen with non-connecting domestic passengers.

    @ The Global Traveller – Wow, that’s harsh for C passengers wanting to use the Koru Club. I can never understand why US Immigration don’t, unlike 99% of the rest of the world, allow transiting passengers to transit without completing immigration formalities. SYD and MEL do a nice job of it, as does AKL. Why not the US?

  22. LAX really is a dump.

    SFO is a better choice when flying some carriers – but if flying on NW (DL now), since a connection through NRT is pretty much required, I’d rather fly PDX or SEA.

  23. I like SFO when flying from the US to NZ because it means only one security checkpoint (flying UA from DC for instance) as there is that internal connection. SFO is cleaner and more relaxed. The only drawback is that the connections are often too close and I have had to run more than once to catch the flight to AKL because my UA flight was late by about 30 mins. LAX is not as welcoming, older and dirtier. Not as pleasant an experience, surely. Arriving into SFO from Australiasia is more enjoyable too, although I don’t think there is much difference going that way.

  24. SFO is in a very foggy area. If it is foggy enough for restricted visibility, a frequent occurrence, one of the two operational runways is shut down, resulting in major traffic backup and lots of missed connections. I would suggest putting up with the inconvenience of LAX in order to have some assurance of making your connection.

    Of course, if you do miss your connection at SFO, San Francisco is a very nice area in which to be stranded.

  25. Nothing like arriving on American Eagle and busing over to term 4 in LAX preparing for your premium experience on a Qantas A-380 in First to Sydney
    then be told to yet get on another bus to the lovely elegant Tom Bradley terminal.Certainly a world class transfer if you ask me 🙂

  26. I hate flying through LAX to and from Asia. Hauling bags from Tom Bradley terminal to Terminal 1 (Southwest)is never fun. But the one time I tried SFO instead, I experinced an hour wait at immigration. then it took another 30 minutes on top of that for my bags to hit the belt. Missed my connection.

    It sounds like this was a rarity and I should give SFO another shot.

  27. I take SFO over LAX any day, and have many times flying to Asia. The options for flying to Asia are extensive from both LAX & SFO and SFO wins out each and every time.

    Happy Flying!

    -Fish

  28. Tom Bradley International Terminal – TBIT at LAX just had a couple million dollar face lift and some new lounges installed. Plus new eateries, includings ‘Pinks’. This is definately not the TBIT of just a few months ago.

    And, this is only a small temporary upgrade, as LAX get ready for the billion dollars upgrade.

    At least they are trying.

  29. LAX may be older and going through repairs and updates — it’s got more connections to other cities and is close to Disneyland too. There tends to be more delays at SFO due to getting fogged in — at least you can look at the pretty airport while you hope your flight will takeoff eventually.

  30. I flew Virgin America from Dulles to Seattle via San Francisco departing and Los Angeles back. SFO is a much better airport than LAX. Easier to get in and out of, nicer, I take SFO hands down 🙂

  31. SFO is streets above LAX – we are Aucklanders, and hate having to come via LAX. It’s a miserable place to wait in queues for processing after a 12 hour flight….

  32. 2 hours waiting line at SFO immigration line today. I wish I could land in Oakland and take a cab…

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