Citing trademark infringement, San Francisco sues Oakland airport over name change plan

A sign inside the Oakland International Airport thanks travelers for flying out of Oakland. It may take more than signage and slogans to attract the international traffic airport officials say is needed, however, citing a recent survey that shows OAK suffers from people not realizing its proximity to San Francisco. (Oakland International Airport)

The other shoe dropped — or, more accurately, was thrown hard against the floor — when San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu made good on his threat to bring suit against the city of Oakland over plans to change the name of its airport.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco on Thursday, accuses Oakland of trademark infringement for its not yet effectuated plan to change the name of Metropolitan Oakland International Airport to “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.”

The suit alleges that San Francisco holds federally registered trademarks on the name of its airport, and that Oakland’s new name would infringe those marks. Chiu requests an injunction against Oakland and its agents (including airlines, rental car and travel booking companies) from using the name in connection with any products or services or in marketing or advertising materials.

Even though Chiu made clear his intention to sue in a demand letter sent to Port of Oakland commissioners on April 8, the timing of the suit was a surprise.

While the commission voted unanimously in favor of the name change at a meeting on April 11, that vote was only on the first reading of the ordinance and was not the official adoption of the proposed name. The final vote was postponed by the commission until May 9 in order to give it more time to talk with stakeholders, though Chiu says Oakland isn’t talking to SFO. 

Soaring ‘confusion’

The core argument of Chiu’s suit is revealed by counting the number of times the word “confusion” and its derivatives are used in the 17-page complaint: the total is 51 (confusion 32, confusingly 10, confused 5, confuse 2 and confusingly and confuses, one apiece.) 

The point the complaint hammers home again and again is that travelers booking flights, especially international travelers, will see “San Francisco” in the name of Oakland’s airport and think they are booking to SFO, only to find themselves on the opposite side of San Francisco Bay, 30 minutes from where they expected to be.

Using occasionally aggressive language, the complaint suggests that Oakland is rushing ahead with its plan in order “to increase passengers and profits” at San Francisco’s expense, fully aware that its actions amount to infringement on San Francisco’s federally licensed mark.

The complaint says that San Francisco had “no choice but to bring this complaint” because Oakland has been unwilling to meet with San Francisco to discuss alternative names — something Chiu says that the city remains willing to consider. However, the complaint alleges that the very confusion it fears has already begun, because at least one airline has begun using the new name.

Some evidence of that is contained in the complaint — it includes a screenshot of an alleged booking website for Azores Airlines, one of the airlines using Oakland’s airport. 

A screenshot from the complaint showed that when the words “San Francisco” were entered into the booking box of Azores Airlines, a dropdown menu appeared featuring two options: “San Francisco” and “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport” — an incident that San Francisco alleges constitutes “a type of confusing commercial use” that it seeks to prevent.

The screenshot appears to show that when the words “San Francisco” are typed in the booking box, a drop down window appears with two names: San Francisco and San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.

The complaint says that “this type of confusing commercial use is exactly what the City is attempting to prevent by this action.”

An attempt by Bay City News to replicate Azores Airlines’ alleged booking screen dropdown on Thursday was not completely successful, though when San Francisco was searched and the “All Regions” dropdown selected, both airport names appeared (including the new San Francisco Bay Oakland one), in each case followed by the proper airport identifiers SFO and OAK. (Oakland is not planning to change the OAK identifier when the airport name is changed.)

OAK’s landing at a business crossroads

Lurking behind the drama of the naming dispute, there appears to be a more fundamental business issue.

The Oakland airport in in the process of planning major renovations that would create new and modernized terminal facilities to accommodate greater passenger demand. 

The project and its potential impacts are described in detail in a 500-page draft environmental impact report released to the public in July 2023. According to the report, the existing facilities at OAK were built to accommodate 8 to 10 million annual passengers. 

The report anticipates annual passenger enplanements of 17.6 million in 2028 and 24.7 million in 2038. 

Traffic flows past the terminal of Oakland International Airport in an undated photo. Travelers may soon have to get used to a new name for the airport; the Port of Oakland Commission is considering changing the airport’s name to San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport. (Port of Oakland via Bay City News)

However, Oakland has had trouble growing its traffic coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its 11 million total passengers in 2023 were almost 2 million less than the 13 million it served in 2019, according to statistics on the airport’s website.

Despite a decade of aggressively pursuing a number of strategies to develop its air services at the Oakland airport, the results have only been “mixed,” according to a report presented to the commissioners by Craig Simon, the Port of Oakland’s interim director of aviation.

Simon said, “Since 2008, 54 new routes have been added, but 39 of these have been discontinued. In addition, six pre-existing routes have also been lost. The airline industry is perceived as being reluctant to sustain certain new routes and destinations to and from OAK, in large part based on the lack of awareness of OAK’s geographic advantages.”

The problem, according to Simon, is that “the further away travelers are from the San Francisco Bay Area region, the less familiar they are with OAK’s geographic location and convenience of access to destinations throughout all Northern California.”

This has resulted in “inbound travelers not choosing OAK even though their travel destinations are closest to OAK.”

Simon thinks that “Incorporating ‘San Francisco Bay’ in a name that also maintains the name ‘Oakland’ will, over time, increase the visibility of OAK flights when ‘San Francisco Bay Area’ or similar terms are used in consumer online searches, aiding in the overall retention of flights and destinations.”

Oakland’s long-term business strategy seems to be laid out in a January airport press release. 

The release states: “The vision of Oakland International Airport is to be the airport of choice for San Francisco Bay Area residents and visitors alike.” 

Whether it will be able to achieve that goal with the words “San Francisco” in its name is now in the hands of the federal courts.

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