San Francisco´s airport handeld almost 56 Mio passengers in 2017 and is the seventh-busiest in the United States. The commuting area of SFO/KSFO is very huge including major cities like Oakland or San Jose and even the Silicon Valley just south of the airport. Furthermore its a very popular tourist destination. Due to all these factors, the airport is served by most major carriers from all over the world and offers a nice mix for plane spotters. SFO is a major hub for United Airlines and Alaska Airlines, former Virgin America. Due to the wide range of international flights, heavy aircraft are a common sight.There is also huge Chinese sub-group in San Francisco and it has the highest percentage of residents of Chinese descent of any major U.S. city. Therefore China is a very popular destination from an to KSFO and served by all major carriers from the country.
The airport itself is situated in the San Francisco Bay. Not ideal for plane spotters The issue is that it is surrounded by water on the north, east and south side. This makes spotting very limited as you can photograph from the western part only starting from noon.
There are two offical outside observation decks. One is atop Terminal 2, before security, and one is atop Terminal 3, after securtiy. Both are behind glass.
Written by Maximilian Kramer (Maxi-Air) and Julian Mittnacht (Visited March 2018)
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| (20 votes, average: 3.90 out of 5)
|01L/19R||2.332 m (7.650 ft)|
|01R/19L||2.637 m (8.650 ft)|
|10L/28R||3.618 m (11.870 ft)|
|10R/28L||3.469 m (11.381 ft)|
|Terminal 1, Concourse B and C||Delta, Frontier, Southwest|
|Terminal 2, Concourse D||Alaska Airlines, American, Virgin America|
|Terminal 3, Concourse E and F||United Airlines Domestic|
|Intl. Terminal, Concourse A and G||All intl. flights and foreign carries. Furthermore following US-Carriers: JetBlue, SunCountry,|
|Ladder||Not required at any location.|
|Car/Public Transport||Not needed as all spots are within the airport perimeter and reachable by public transport, hotel shuttles, airtrain amd last but not least by foot.
|Restrooms||Within the terminals and the hotels south of the terminals.|
|Drinks/Food||There are restaurants spreaded around the hotel area south of the terminals.|
|Hotels||Lots of hotels in different price categories are south of the terminals|
|Season||SFO is an all year round destination. In summer you have better weather and longer days but more heat distorion as you mainly can shot ground traffic.|
|General infos||Usually most time of the year runways 01 and 28 are the active, also called the “west plan”. Heavies bound to Europe or Asia use RWY28 for their departure.
10 and 19 movements are very rare but in this case they “south-east plan” is active.
Have a look at the two images below for a detailed description.
|01L/19R||01L is used for deparutres only most of the time. 19R barely in use for arrivals.|
|01L/19R||01R is used for deparutres only most of the time. 19L barely in use for arrivals.|
|01L/19R||Mostly 28R is used for arrivals and heavy departures. 10L barely in use for departures.|
|01L/19R||Mostly 28L is used for arrivals and heavy departures. 10R barely in use for departures.|
|Spot #1 – Waterfront/Bayfront Park – 28L arrivals|
|WHERE||The most popular spotting location in SFO is the Bayfront Park and the Waterfront. Leave Highway 101 at exit ‘Millbrae Ave’ and follow Millbrae Av. Eastbound. At the traffic lights turn right into Old Bayshore Highway. After 500m the spot is located on the left side. You can also try to catch on of the shuttle buses to the Westin or Marriot hotel. By foot from the int. terminal you should be need approximate 30 minutes. There are about 10-15 free parking slots the rest is from Marriott hotel. Plenty of hotels are just next to the park.
Address for navigation: 1820 Old Bayshore Highway, Millbrae, California, USA
|WHAT||Best for landing 28L and taxiway F. Photograph single aisle aircraft are to small due to the extreme heat distortion so you should concentrate on the heavies.
You can´t photograph 01L/R movements as the view is blocked by a fence along the border and not suitable for photoraphy.
|TIME||Best light from noon till sunset, better pictures at tidal|
|MISC.||At the park itself there are some benches to relax and enough shadow. Restrooms in the hotel behind you.
Due to high distance and the water, heat haze is a big problem here even in winter. There is a white flag installed that can be a bit disturbing (see Cathay sample below).
|FOCAL LENGTH||400mm for A380.|
|Spot #2 – Westin Hotel – 28/01|
|WHERE||The spot is a room within the Westin Hotel. It is the same direction as above and on the opposite side of the bayfront park. Ask for a room in the eastern wing with a view northwards to the airport. Sadly you can´t open the windows.|
|WHAT||Its the only good location for departures on RWY 01. Movements on 28 are possible from a room in the northern wing, facing east. But it is not really an option due to the heat and distance and it is better to go out to the waterfront as you are closer.|
|TIME||Good location to spend almost the whole day for 01 and it is easy to move to #1 in the evening.|
|MISC.||Everything you need is within the hotel.|
|Spot #3 – International Parking Garages G and A – Ramp movements|
|WHERE||The spot is easily to find as it is on the top of the international terminal parking garages. Just follow the signs by car or use the AirTrain and follow the signs to the second highest level of the parking. The railing is a bit high and its difficult to photograph. An alternative are the stairs of the skytrain station.|
|WHAT||Usually the northern garage G is the better choice as the sun is behind you. Garage A is possible too but the light conditions are good in the late afternoon only.
The action is limited here to the movements to and from the Gates G91,93,97,99 and a few remote parking stands. Check the airport website to see which airlines are located in concourse G but its mainly Star Alliance.
|TIME||For the G gates it depends on the angle but almost all day long. A is more tricky and better in the evening. You can try night shots too from here!|
|MISC.||Everything you need within the terminal.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||20-200mm. Depends on what you photograph as many different situations are possible.|
|Spot #4 – AirTrain Station|
|WHERE||The location is at the AirTrain Station of the domestic terminal 2. Just get on the platform of the trains. There is an open staircase at each end of the station where you have a sight over the terminals to the runways and taxiways. You are outside and have no glass or anything else infront of you.|
|WHAT||North Side: this part isn`t that good anymore as a building is almost completly blocks the view of aircraft departing especially on RWY28L (United on the samples below). RWY28R is possible too but its more far away and there is more heat distortion. Furthermore the timeframe for taking is very short due to the limited sight. And last but not least aircraft parked on the B gates block your sight too!
South Side: you can photograph departures on RWY01 and aircraft on taxiway Alpha and Bravo (Alaska on the samples below).
|TIME||North Side from noon for the runway. South side only in the late afternoon till sunset in the summer.|
|MISC.||Everything you need within the terminal. Keep a low profile. Heat haze is a serious issue.|
|FOCAL LENGTH||200-400mm. Depends on what you photograph as many different situations are possible.|
|Spot #5 – Parking Garage – 28R departures, taxiways|
|WHERE||In the cargo area at the end of West Field Rd is a parking garage where you can make photos from the top level. You can reach it by using the AirTrain and exit at the West Field Station and walk just 2-3 minutes straight along the road. You can see the garage already from the station. Its not a public garage so park your car elswere and use the AirTrain.|
|WHAT||You can photograph many different things from here. Firts of all its the best place for heavy 28R departures. 28L is possible too but the angle is not the best (visit Spot #4 instead).
Second, some aircraft arrived on 28 using the full runway length to roll out (see AerLingus or SAS on the samples below) will pass by on taxiway Zulu.
Furthermore aircraft coming from a northern gate taxing by for a 28R departure by using taxiway Zulu and then all the way down on Charlie to the threshold.
And last but not least all planes that are towed to the maintenance and ramps on the north side of the field will pass by.
In the extremly rare case that the “south-east plan” is active you can make the 10 departures from here too.
|TIME||Best light from noon till sunset.|
Security Note: sooner or later you the police will visit you and kindly ask you to leave. Thats why you need a photo permisson from the airport to make photos from this position. Just write a message a few days in advance of your stay to the airport and ask for a permit for the time of your stay.
|FOCAL LENGTH||50-400mm. Depends on what you photograph as many different situations are possible.|
|Spot #6 – Fisherman´s Park – 28L arrivals|
|WHERE||Compared to the other locations, this small park is pretty far from the airport and best reachable by car. From the airports highway 101 use exit 419/Broadway and turn into the airport blvd. Drive all the way up along the water until you reach the Fisherman´s Park on your left hand side. You can park your car free of charge.
There are some airport hotels next to the park so you might be able to catch a shuttle bus to get there if you don´t have a car.
|WHAT||Arrivals on RWY 28L only.|
|TIME||Best light from noon till sunset.|
|MISC.||At the park itself there is nothing just some trees spending shadow. Restrooms in the hotels.|
|Spot #7 – Sky Terrace|
|WHERE||Located atop Terminal 2, the SkyTerrace offers a great vantage point of the busiest section of SFO, where all four runways intersect. The SkyTerrace is located before security in Terminal 2. Just follow the sign. Taking pictures is limited as the terrace is behind huge glass walls.|
|WHAT||10L/R-28L/R movements, taxiway, ramp.|
|TIME||Best light from noon till sunset.|
|MISC.||open to the general public on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. There is no cost to enter and you don’t need a ticket or boarding pass. Visitors will undergo a security check. Food and beverages are allowed but smoking is not permitted.|