Tales from the SFO Intra-Terminal Shuttle Bus

With a delay in opening the remodeled E-Concourse at SFO, United Airlines is stuck using several gates in Terminal 1 in addition to its main operation in Terminal 3 and the International Terminal. That means a free airport tour between terminals on an airside van each time I fly up from Burbank and also a funny story.

United Express intra-California flights primarily operate out of Terminal 1, so it seems like every Sunday night I am traveling back to Philadelphia I must make the terminal switch. That involves going downstairs in T1 and taking a five minute shuttle ride over to Terminal 3. I always fly at night going east, so it's not like I am getting a cool tour of the tarmac--I usually just zone out or read e-mail on my phone during the trip over. Last time, though, the ride was a little more interesting.

In addition to the driver, there is a helper to direct people onboard who rides back and forth on the shuttle. A conversation between him and a passenger sitting in the back is transcribed below. The helper looked to be a guy in his mid 20s and the passenger in the back of the van looked something like Ken Curtis from Gunsmoke. Let's call him Festus.

Festus (yelling): Hey, can I smoke in here?

Helper: No sir.

Festus: Well where can I smoke? I got me a two hour layover.

Helper: You'll have to go outside.

Festus: You mean I gotta go through that security stuff again?

Helper: That's right.

Festus: Aww shucks, in Denver I just go upstairs. They got a great bar there.

Helper: Oh, man. Sorry about that. They're pretty strict here.

Festus: You know how long I been smoking?

Helper: No. How long?

Fetus: 42 years. Since I was 8!

Helper (yelling): Dddddaaaaaammmmmnnnn!

[the way he said it was just hilarious and you have to understand he was in the front of the shuttle, Festus was in the back, and they were having this back and forth conversation with 15 passengers between them.]

Festus: Yeah, 42 years.

Helper: You ever tried quitting?

Festus: I tried a couple times but I've given up

Helper: Oh, sorry to hear that.

Festus: It's not so bad.

With that, the bus pulled up and passengers made their way off the bus and up the stairs. I happened to be walking behind Festus on my way to the United Club and heard him engage one of the AirServ clerks guarding the exit who looked like Stanley from the Office (and was about as lethargic):

Festus: Can I smoke here?

Stanley: No.

Festus: How about in there? (pointing to the Yankee Pier restaurant just past security near gate 71)

Stanley: No.

Festus: Well, do I just go down these steps?

Stanley: Yes.

* * *

festus Although it wasn't appropriate for the helper to yell "damn" in a shuttle full of people, the whole situation just made me laugh. But it also made me recall this blog post from June 2010 in which I lamented the lack of airport smoking lounges in the United States.

My opinion has not changed at all--asking passengers to drag all their belongings outside then back though security again just to take a drag is not reasonable. Leading world airports continue to offer reasonable accommodation to smokers without causing harm to those who steer clear of the designated smoking areas. I find it sad that international gateways like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston are all now smoke free past security.

Airports like Atlanta still offer the best solution in my mind--easily accessible smoking lounges throughout the airport--but perhaps a smoking lounge like Denver's Smokin' Bear lounge could be a compromise. I think one pay-to-use lounge in a separately-ventilated room with no employees having to staff it is not asking too much. Still, I hate to see those specially-constructed patios at LAX go to waste just gathering dust.

Poor Festus. I hope he made his flight.


BR April 8, 2013 at 03:52 am

Haha good ol' Festus. When do we get to read about your Afghanistan trip?

David April 8, 2013 at 06:57 am

A) Denver closed their smoking bar recently B) There should be no accomodation for smokers. They chose to engage in a bad habit, there's no reason we should accommodate their vice.

@David: The Aviator's Lounge closed in Denver but the Smoky Bear Smoking Lounge now accommodates smokers. As for your second point, why single out this particular vice? Airports are full of bars serving alcohol and shops selling junk food and smut. Smoking just annoys people because of the smell, I realize, but that doesn't mean we cannot accommodate the expensive and disgusting habit 20% of the country is still addicted to. Security is so cumbersome it is just unreasonable to say they must go back and forth to smoke.

@BR: I'm working on the Afghanistan report.

PK April 8, 2013 at 02:03 pm

I hate cigarette smoke but I feel sorry for the guy and think he deserves reasonable accommodation.

BR April 8, 2013 at 02:44 pm

I agree with David. There should be no accommodation for smokers. Having a smoking lounge creates an eyesore and it takes up valuable airport space. Creating a smoking lounge that requires you to pay to access it is interesting, but I think an airport could generate a lot more revenue by leasing out that space to a restaurant or a sundry shop.

You ask the question, why should this particular vice be singled out when airports already sell unhealthy junk food and alcohol? The answer to that question is simple. For one, these vice do not produce nasty odors or cause secondhand smoke. Also, most people do not want the vices to be banned, unlike smoking.

Would I like to see alcohol banned from airports or maybe see greater limits on alcohol in airports? Yes, of course. It could solve a lot of problems surrounding unruly passengers. However, it is likely never going to happen. Smoking, on the other hand, has enough public support to have it banned in all public places. So why shouldn't we aid in curbing this nasty habit?

Pim April 9, 2013 at 09:08 am

Providing a place to smoke may now be perceived as a legal liability. Someone gets lung cancer because he smoked in a designated airport area, then turns around and sues the airlines for providing a place that is now killing him. Whackier lawsuits have been filed and won. Why provide a service that is unhealthy and is needed less and less now that fewer people smoke. It's like installing phone booths in an airport. The need is waning for both.

PK April 9, 2013 at 09:36 am

I'll answer BR's question: Nanny airports refusing to provide smoking lounges will simply see the passengers go through security to go outside and smoke there and annoy passengers such as myself who dislike walking by smokers. At least with the smoking lounge, they're in their place and not holding up security traffic.

I laughed about the idea of keeping the floor space available for shops since American airport shops are lousy. They can't afford to shutdown one of the kitsch T-shirt shops? Here's some ideas for a better use of airport terminal space:

Bunk bed areas. Vinyl beds with built in alarms so people with long layovers can relax. This isn't a bus terminal where the homeless can hang out so why make tired people suffer in the general gate area?

Next, showers. Again, the homeless aren't there and this would go a long way to helping people, er, freshen up and make those connections after red-eyes a lot more pleasant.

Hmmm, his use of the word "vice" gives me an idea. One word: Schiphol. 'nuff said. Use your imagination. Perhaps at Vegas? (I think the Mormons control that area though)

@BR: I think PK highlights the problem, which I also wrote about in my last post on this topic. Not only do smokers add to the congestion of security lines, but when they stand outside the door smoking everyone who walks by has to breath the filthy air. I hate pulling up to T6 at LAX and walking in because I always have to work my way through a cloud of smokers. This wasn't a problem when smokers could just use airside patios.

Having an enclosed room would herd smokers there, cleaning the air outside. And as for odor, honestly I prefer cigarette smoke to the foul stench of cheap beer!

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