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San Francisco Sues Oakland Over Plan to Change Airport Name

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An airport terminal with line dividers and luggage check with a sign that reads "Oakland International."
Oakland International Airport on April 14, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ready for another Battle of the Bay?

San Francisco on Thursday sued Oakland to block the city from renaming Oakland International Airport to “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.”

Filed in U.S. district court, the suit accuses Oakland of infringing on San Francisco International Airport’s (SFO) trademark. It comes a week after the Port of Oakland’s board of commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with the name change in a bid to draw more traffic to the airport.

But San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said the renaming would lead to widespread confusion and chaos for travelers, particularly non-English speakers. He noted that at least one international airline — Portugal’s Azores Airlines — has already started using the new name on its flight reservations system.

“We believe that Oakland intentionally designed their new rename to divert those who were unfamiliar with Bay Area geography, and also is trying to mislead the public in suggesting that Oakland might have a business relationship with SFO, which it does not,” Chiu told KQED.

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He said the name change would likely cause many travelers to go to the wrong airport and miss their flights and could result in major economic losses and damage to the regional travel industry.

Chiu added that his office only learned about the proposed name change about a half hour before the Oakland Port publicly announced it last month. Since then, he said, Oakland has rebuffed his repeated attempts to work with the city to come up with a more reasonable alternative.

“Litigation, from our perspective, is a last resort,” he said, “but given that Oakland has refused to engage with us, we’re forced to move forward with a lawsuit today.”

The suit seeks to force Oakland to stop using the new name, destroy all physical and digital materials that display it, and to pay any related damages and fees.

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In a statement on Thursday, Port of Oakland Attorney Mary Richardson dismissed the notion that the proposed renaming in any way violated SFO’s trademark and said the port would “take all reasonable measures to ensure clarity for travelers.”

“SFO cannot lay claim to the geographically descriptive term ‘San Francisco,’ let alone claim exclusive rights to the San Francisco Bay,” she said. “The Port trusts that travelers understand that the San Francisco Bay — like virtually every other major metropolitan area throughout the world — can contain more than one airport.”

In its late March video announcement, Oakland Board of Port Commissioners President Barbara Leslie said increasing the public’s awareness of the airport’s central geographic location in the Bay Area was key to increasing the number of available flights and destinations.

“We’ve found that over half of frequent international travelers and nearly a third of domestic travelers are unaware of OAK’s amazing location in the heart of Northern California and the San Francisco Bay Area,” she said in the video.

Leslie added that the lack of awareness has meant flights haven’t performed as well as they could, leading to a loss of existing routes and a reluctance among airlines to add new routes.

Port officials last week also released the results of two surveys asking residents of Oakland and the broader East Bay region to weigh in on the proposed name change. Initially, only a slim majority said they were comfortable with the change. But after the rationale for the change was explained to them, roughly two-thirds of respondents said they approved of it.

But Chiu argued that there are many other ways for Oakland’s airport to reference its geographic location without infringing on SFO’s trademark and confusing countless travelers.

“Oakland is trying to profit off of the fact that SFO has invested billions of dollars over decades in the reputation of the name San Francisco International Airport, the services at San Francisco International Airport,” he said. “And that’s not fair.”

This story includes reporting from KQED’s Juan Carlos Lara.

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