In the first quarter of 2019, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) opened a new and unique amenity for travelers and aviation geeks: an outdoor terrace and observation deck. The outdoor terrace is located post-security at the SFO’s International Terminal G-Concourse. Once you are through security follow the main corridor to the G-Gates all the way to the end. Because the observation deck is post-security, easy access have only passengers flying from any of the G-Gates or flying out of Terminal 3 as this one is connected by a secure walkway. Terminal 3 serves mainly United Airlines and the G-Concourse serves United including its Star Alliance partner airlines.
Don’t give up yet. If you have enough time and a valid boarding pass for a same-day flight, you still can get to the observation deck. You just have to manage your time wisely and keep in mind, that if you are not flying out from G-Gates or Terminal 3, you have to get out of the secure area and clear security again. It helps if you have TSA-Pre or Clear to expedite this procedure. I visited the outdoor terrace while I was flying out of Terminal 2. You can talk the AirTrain to Terminal 3 or International Terminal G or just walk and follow the signs for Terminal 3. Taking the AirTrain is only recommended from Terminal 1, as it is quite a bit to walk.
I walked from Terminal 2 all the way to the International Terminal and passing Terminal 3. The good thing here is, that G Concourse is on the same side of the International Terminal as the connection from Terminal 3 to the International Terminal.
If you are walking to the G-Concourse, bear in mind when passing through Terminal 3 that you can use any of their security checkpoints to get to the outdoor terrace. If you see one with a short line, use it. As walking distance is no different pre-security or post-security. The agents will probably tell you that you are in the wrong terminal for your flight, just tell them you are going to the observation deck. It’s fully legal to enter the secured area of the airport in a different terminal as long as you have a valid boarding pass.
When I tried to enter through the security checkpoint at the International Terminal, the agent checking the boarding passes was confused and told me that I am in the wrong terminal. Unfortunately there English was not the best, and she didn’t understand when I explained that I am only going to the observation deck. She asked her colleague to come over. She looked at my boarding pass and I guess she thought I am going to Asia as she pronounced Tacoma completely different and both women were Asian-descent but finally said I am good to go. These two agents were not TSA-agents, just staff to check your boarding pass to send you down the right security lane for regular, priority or TSA-Pre and to ensure that you are in the right terminal. The interaction only took a minute and I think it was kinda funny. Thanks to my Pre-Check boarding pass I was through security in no time.
Once you are through security you can already see the sign overhead with arrows pointing you to the Outdoor Terrace. Just walk all the way down to the end of the terminal and use the doors next to Joe & The Juice to get outside. The doors open automatically as you walk up to them.
Outdoor Terrace & Observation Deck
Outside, on the 2,997 square foot terrace, you find wooden chairs, tables, and chaise lounges situated among a creative display of drought-tolerant landscaping. Besides all that you will find three bronze sculptures by local artist Woody Othello. The terrace is surrounded by 10-feet tall bird-safe glass panels to provide wind protection and security and safety for the planes below. Unfortunately, not very ideal for plane spotters as the glass has many smudges and, unfortunately, not only on the inside. Inside would be easy to clean with a piece of cloth you can bring with you, but don’t even attempt to clean the outside as they will see it as a security risk and the place is monitored by cameras. On the other side, I don’t even know how you would get easily over the 10-feet tall panels. 😉 Reflections can be a problem too, but they are easier to fix if you have the right gear like a polarizer or a specific lens hood for this task.
It’s still a great space to observe planes and also hear them. Remember, there is no roof, so the sound is just diverted a little bit by the glass panels but not blocked like inside the terminal. The observation deck is also a great place to soak up some sun before or after your flight.
G-Concourse serves mostly international departures. This place is a dream for plane spotters as you get to see the “big boys”, like the Boeing 747, 777, 787 (Dreamliner) and the biggest passenger airplane in the world, the Airbus A380. The outdoor terrace is open daily from 7 a.m. – 11:30 p.m.
More good News
SFO actually plans to open a second observation deck in October 2019 in Terminal 2. This observation deck will be located pre-security and is open for everyone. No boarding pass is required to visit the observation deck.
Update: The Observation Deck in Terminal 2 opened on February 14, 2020.
SFO and their social media team (@flySFO) is on the forefront if it comes to plane spotting. They hold monthly plane spotting events as well as events for special aircraft arrivals. I was lucky enough to join the @flySFO team on an amazing plane spotting experience to photograph airplanes from right next to the tarmac.
Don’t forget to check out my guide for other great plane spotting locations around SFO.
Peter has a passion for Traveling, Photography, and Geocaching. These are the best ingredients for amazing adventures all over the globe. “Traveling is fun, no matter if you stay in a luxury hotel or travel like a backpacker.” Peter shares his experiences on his Blog www.gatetoadventures.com
Some of Peter’s photos are published on corporate websites, in-flight magazines, travel guides, and much more.