As SF pursues lawsuit, Port of Oakland board gives final blessing to airport name change

Photo illustration by Bay city News staff

The Oakland Board of Port Commissioners has surprised no one by approving a new name for the airport formerly known as “Metropolitan Oakland International Airport.”

Going forward, the airport identifier “OAK” will remain associated with the same airport, which now officially bears the name “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.”

The commissioners voted unanimously on Thursday in favor of the change without pausing long on the downsides to the proposal.

A majority of the 10 speakers during the public comment period of the meeting were against the name change on grounds that more traffic will further degrade air quality in the area. They argued that climate change and environmental justice weighed heavily against the proposal.

Yet those concerns did not prove a deterrent to the commissioners’ final approval of the name change and they were not the only concerns that the commissioners swept aside.

They were also seemingly unconcerned about the fact that on April 18, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu filed a federal lawsuit against Oakland based on trademark infringement.

Chiu’s suit alleges that San Francisco holds federally registered trademarks on the name of its airport and its identifier (San Francisco International Airport and SFO, respectively), and that Oakland’s new name would infringe those marks.

Chiu requested an injunction against Oakland and its agents (including airlines, rental car and travel booking companies) barring them from using the name in connection with any products or services or in marketing or advertising materials.

Chiu did not ask for a preliminary injunction at the time the suit was filed (perhaps because the ordinance’s second reading had not yet occurred), but a spokesperson for Chiu’s office confirmed to Bay City News that it will be forthcoming.

The cost of legal fisticuffs with San Francisco would seem to be a factor worth consideration. In a report to the commissioners, the airport’s interim manager estimated the total cost of the name change to be $150,000 — mostly for the expenses of new signage.

But that estimate did not include legal fees.

Chiu has already engaged outside lawyers to handle the litigation for San Francisco. The firm is an intellectual property boutique with particular strength in the trademark arena.

Chiu has said that he expects Oakland will have to reimburse San Francisco’s legal fees and other litigation expenses at the close of the litigation.

Oakland’s business problem

At the heart of the very public dust-up is the fact that the Oakland airport has a fundamental business problem, and the commissioners must have decided that a name change is the cheapest way that they can address it.

The airport is in the process of planning major renovations — a new 830,000-square-foot terminal building and an additional 16 passenger gates — that would create modernized facilities to accommodate greater passenger demand.

The project is not a casual thought. The project scope 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 were built to accommodate 8 to 10 million annual passengers.

The report says the project is needed because the airport will have annual passenger traffic of 17.6 million in 2028 and 24.7 million in 2038. But if that growth is not likely, the modernization project will face serious headwinds.

The airport has had trouble growing its usage 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.

To achieve the projected 17.6 million passengers in 2028, the Oakland airport will need to add nearly 1.2 million new passengers each and every year for five years. That would amount to an annual growth rate of just short of 10 percent.

Under the status quo, recurring 10 percent year-over-year growth seems fanciful. Statistics on the airport’s website show that there hasn’t been sustained growth at that level in recent years. 

The Oakland International Airport (OAK). (Port of Oakland via Bay City News)

In the 10 years before the disastrous COVID years, Oakland’s average annual growth in passengers was 3.48 percent, according to statistics on the airport’s website. 

Even during the period from 2014 to 2019 — years of stronger growth — the average was only 5.30 percent. 

And more recently, passenger growth has been very modest. In the first two months of 2024, the growth rate was only 1.83 percent which, despite its weakness, an improvement over the anemic .83 percent rate in 2023.

The airport’s leadership is acutely aware of the issue. Craig Simon, the Port of Oakland’s interim director of aviation, told the commissioners that despite a decade of aggressively pursuing a number of strategies to develop its air services, the results have only been “mixed.”

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.”

Given the difficulties that the Oakland airport has had growing traffic by traditional approaches, it has decided its best approach is to try a different tack.

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.”

With Thursday’s vote, the commissioners have decided they are willing to give it a try, even if it means a full-tilt fight with San Francisco.

Oakland’s business problem becomes San Francisco’s

But Oakland may underestimate how hard San Francisco will fight.

If Oakland expects the name change can help get to its projected 17.6 million passengers in 2028, San Francisco could bear those losses.

Even if SFO’s actual projected loss of revenue — something presumably that SFO will need to prove in the preliminary injunction hearing — is much lower than that estimate, it seems clear that the number will be large enough that SFO will have plenty of incentive to fight.

Plot 41h at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). SFO, located at 780 McDonnell Rd, San Francisco, Calif., is an enterprise department of the City and County of San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of SFO)

San Francisco certainly seems ready to rumble.

Asked whether there was an interest in seeing Gov. Gavin Newsom get involved in the dispute, Chiu’s spokesperson said, “We welcome anyone into the conversation who wants to help avoid traveler confusion.”

However, the spokesperson quickly added, “The heart of the legal issue here is trademark infringement, and the courts are the proper venue to decide trademark infringement disputes.”

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