Oakland Int'l Dramatically Increases International Service & Plans for Even More

Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

In the last year, Oakland International Airport (OAK) has increased its international traffic by a whopping 73%. That's no easy task-especially given its location directly across the bay from San Francisco International Airport and about 35 miles north of Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. 

"We are obviously in a very competitive international market," says Bryant L. Francis, OAK's director of aviation. "We believe our airport offers several distinct advantages, and we are working hard to market those."

For passengers departing from the East Bay area, OAK stresses its proximity and convenience. For arriving passengers, it emphasizes connectivity. "Inbound passengers from overseas can land in Oakland, and take rapid transit to downtown San Francisco in only 30 minutes," explains Francis. "If they want to rent a car and visit Napa Valley or Lake Tahoe, they are an hour closer to those destinations if they arrive in Oakland."

When Francis joined OAK in March 2016, the airport had a few carriers that had been serving select international markets for several years, but he saw considerable potential for expansion, especially to Europe. "When I arrived, there was already great momentum for international travel," he reflects. "Only one month following my arrival, Norwegian Air started flying to Gatwick. They had already been flying to Oslo and Stockholm for several years. Volaris had been here for seven years; and Azores Airlines has serviced Oakland for 25 years."

In order to expand international service, Francis knew the airport had to increase its capacity to handle more aircraft and passengers. Airside, OAK had sufficient runway length and two gates with loading bridges that could handle any-size aircraft. But the cramped terminals were another matter, he notes.

OAK consequently launched a $40 million construction project in August 2016 to expand and renovate its International Arrivals Building in Terminal 1. Improvements will include:

  • a new baggage carousel;

  • interior design changes to create a more pleasant, modern environment;

  • reconfigured offices for Customs and Border Protection services; and

  • larger, more efficient primary screening operations, including expanded use of automated passport control kiosks. 

With contractors scheduled to wrap up by mid-year, most of the construction and renovation work is already finished. When completed, the new facility will increase efficiency and modernization for OAK as it expands its international operations, Francis explains. "Current operations are limited to one 787 aircraft (300 passengers). However, with the expanded facility, two 787 aircraft will be able to be processed simultaneously."

Screening operations for arriving international passengers will be housed in a new building addition that provides more room for queuing and processing. The airport is also increasing self-service options by installing eight more BORDERXPRESS(tm) kiosks, bringing its total to 16. Developed by a branch of the Vancouver Airport Authority, the automated passport control system allows travelers to complete data-entry functions themselves at kiosks. The system automatically sends the encrypted information to U.S. Customs & Border Protection for review, and within seconds, travelers receive a receipt that they then present to a Customs officer for verification. 

Work crews made room for the kiosks and other processing enhancements by modifying passenger boarding bridges, aircraft parking positions, fuel pits, adjacent apron and taxiways. 

New Lounge

Inside the terminal, lack of a high-end lounge had previously been a glaring deficiency. "International passengers expect to have access to a comfortable, quiet, full-service airport lounge, and we did not have one," says Francis. "Since none of the major airlines had a lounge here, we decided to open one that would be available to any traveler."

The Escape Lounge that OAK debuted late last fall with MAG USA has been popular from day one, he reports. "It has been very successful. Passengers with premium cabin tickets on Norwegian Air and British Airways can use it for free. Any other passenger can gain access by paying a $45 fee at the door (or $40 online with advance reservation)," Francis specifies. 

Amenities include a menu featuring local specialties; a variety of complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages; and free high-speed Wi-Fi. Furnishings were selected for style and comfort, and flight information screens keep travelers updated about departure times and gate assignments.  

Chris Pastena, a well-known chef and restaurateur in the Bay Area, oversees culinary operations. "Chris is very creative, and he specializes in offering very fresh dishes using local ingredients," comments Rosemarie Andolino, president and chief executive officer for MAG USA. "Escape also offers a nice variety of California wines as well as local coffee brand RoastCo."

The lounge was designed to consistently exude a quiet, comfortable atmosphere, she adds. "During our busiest days, we welcome more than 200 guests to the lounge, but of course, they are there at different times throughout the day. We can accommodate as many as 64 guests at one time with seating options that range from comfy lounge chairs to dining and bar eating. We have designed the lounge so people can relax or work in a quiet space." 

MAG USA spent more than $1 million building the new lounge. And although it has been open for less than a year, Andolino is confident the company will quickly turn a profit. "It is just increasing in popularity," she reports. "My main worry now is that we may eventually need more space."

Like other concessioners, MAG USA pays a percentage of its profits to the airport.

Besides its agreements with Norwegian Air and British Airways, the company also works with local businesses to provide lounge access to employees. Andolino is especially pleased about a partnership with American Express that began in mid-May. "Our agreement allows Platinum Card holders free entrance to all three U.S. Escape lounges, as well as future lounges," she explains.

The Escape Lounge at OAK is MAG USA's third stateside location. The others are at Minneapolis International Airport (MSP) and Bradley International Airport (BDL) in Hartford, CT. "We try to tailor each lounge, since every airport is different," comments Andolino. "We are flexible in order to make our product fit the space-no 'one size fits all' blueprint."

Based on the company's profitable lounge at Stansted Airport in England, Andolino feels that an Escape Lounge is a perfect fit for OAK because both are home to several low-cost airlines. "At Stansted, the main airline is Ryanair, a discount carrier," she explains. "We learned that customers are value-conscious rather than cost-conscious, so they will treat themselves to a bit of luxury, such as our lounge."

This past April, the Escape Lounges at OAK and BDL were named the "Best New Consumer Service Concept" by Airports Council International-North America. 

"We are so delighted to have received that award," Andolino says. "ACI is a great organization, and to be recognized among all those applications was quite an honor. It shows that we are on the right track." 

Local & Int'l Prospects 

Opening the Escape Lounge was an important first step, but airport officials have more plans in the works. To help attract local residents, OAK is offering a special summer promotion: free parking for up to five days for passengers traveling to Europe on all nonstop flights.  

Getting foreign travelers to enter the United States via OAK is another major goal, notes Marketing Director John Albrecht. "Napa and Sonoma are having significant growth, with more than 4 million visitors a year," he notes. "As the closest major airport, we are trying hard to tap into that market." 

Scandinavian passengers in particular seem to be embracing the airport. "They want to make the so-called 'triangle trip' of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. They want to see as much of the West as they can. OAK is a great place to start and end this trip," explains Albrecht.

"Norwegian Air has structured its fares much like Southwest, in that its passengers can fly in to Oakland, and make the return from Los Angeles or Las Vegas without paying an extra fee. So people can rent a car at their arrival airport, drive around the West, and depart from another airport if they so desire."

By the Numbers

So far, this has been a banner year at OAK, with international traffic increasing 73% from March 2016 to March 2017. Overall, the airport served more than 12 million passengers last year, and Francis expects that total to climb even higher this year. 

The expansion of international traffic included several key steps: 

  • In late March, Norwegian Air added flights from OAK to Copenhagen. With existing service to Oslo and Stockholm, OAK is now the only Bay Area airport to service all three Scandinavian capitals.

  • In early June 2017, Norwegian started flying to Barcelona, Spain. 

  • Level, a Spanish newcomer and subsidiary of British Airways, also started service from OAK to Barcelona in early June.

  • British Airways introduced service to London's Gatwick Airport in late March. 

  • Last February, Southwest Airlines added service to two popular tourist destinations in Mexico: Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta.

  • In February 2018, Norwegian will begin service to Rome.

In the future, OAK hopes to attract Asian carriers as well. "Our eventual goal is to offer nonstop service to the Top 50 San Francisco Bay Area markets," says Albrecht. "Asia is certainly included in that, and we aim to have service to Asia at some point. We feel we are the largest underserved market from the United States to China and several other countries in Asia."

The terminal expansion project is helping current carriers realize that OAK is a viable option for new international service, he adds. "Above all, our ever-increasing passenger traffic shows that the demand for international travel to our airport is very high, and that is our best selling point. From a business standpoint, our airline partners can see the economic advantages of coming here." 


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