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Why Renaming Oakland's Airport Is a Big Deal

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Passengers walk in to the Oakland International Airport in Oakland on April 12, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Oakland officials are moving ahead with a plan to rename the city’s airport to “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.” 

Residents, business groups, and airlines all have a lot to say about it, and San Francisco has also filed a lawsuit to try and stop the renaming from happening. The Oaklandside’s Eli Wolfe joins us to talk about why the name change feels existential. 

Editor’s note: Oakland International Airport is a financial supporter of KQED.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Oakland plans to change Oakland International airports name to the San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport. The Port of Oakland, which owns the airport, wants more travelers to see Oakland as a main travel hub when they come to the Bay.

Eli Wolfe: This isn’t just a rebrand. This is really trying to make a play to make Oakland more relevant, both in the Bay, but I mean around the world.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: But there are a bunch of reasons why different groups are not down for this change. And last Thursday, San Francisco sued to try and stop the renaming from happening. Today, the Oakland side’s Eli Wolfe: explains why renaming o k is existential. Quick note before we start. The Port of Oakland is a financial supporter of KQED. Financial supporters have no input on new stories about them.

Eli Wolfe: So this discussion has been going on at least since last summer. The airport put out a survey to residents in the East Bay, basically trying to gauge their comfort level with a name change that would better reflect the airport’s proximity to the San Francisco Bay. But they didn’t really give much of a hint as to what the specific name would look like.

Eli Wolfe: That only really came out a couple weeks ago, when the port announced that it was going to be meeting to give preliminary approval to a new name change, with San Francisco at the head of the title to the San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport. Unless something changes in the next couple of weeks, that is going to likely be the name for Oakland Airport going forward.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, why change the name at all? Like, what is the problem? The Port Commission is trying to solve by changing the name of the airport.

Eli Wolfe: So the problem basically boils down to this. The port claims that people just don’t know where Oakland is located. That people don’t realize that Oakland is very close to San Francisco, which is where a lot of fliers want to go. The port is tried for many years to play up Oakland’s proximity to San Francisco and the rest of the Bay and its marketing, but it hasn’t really worked out.

Eli Wolfe: And you can see that with the flights from 2008 to 2024, the port attracted 54 new direct flight routes, but lost 45. So the port officials basically say this is an indicator that when people are traveling to San Francisco, Oakland International just doesn’t really show up as an option for them. And so carriers have less incentive to fly into Oakland. The port ‘s executive director, Danny Wan, has actually called that the Achilles heel of the airport’s marketing strategy.

Danny Wan: As much as we’ve done, we brought these new destinations come to Oakland and yet we lose them because partly because of a lack of geographic identification. This is to accurately bring Oakland and okay to the forefront of where we are on the San Francisco Bay. Instead of being the background of the Bay area.

Eli Wolfe: The supporters mainly consist of obviously the Port Commission and the airport, but also the airlines that use Oakland are very enthusiastic about this. They think it’s going to allow them to do more business here. You also see a lot of support from East Bay tourism and business associations. They have every incentive to want more people to fly to Oakland, because those people are more likely to spend their dollars in Oakland and other cities in the East Bay.

Eli Wolfe: And obviously, the Port Commissioners themselves are very enthusiastic about this, and they claim that there’s widespread support among Oakland residents and East Bay residents. There were a couple surveys that the port released that found that most respondents that they talked to were comfortable with the idea of a name change.

Danny Wan: And so this is about being pro Oakland, bringing that necessary flights and people to Oakland as well as the East Bay Bay region.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, the arguments against the renaming and why the most vocal opponents are suing over it. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What about the opposition?

Eli Wolfe: There’s a few different groups. First off, San Francisco does not like this. Airport officials have said that this is going to confuse passengers, especially people who don’t read or speak English. They kind of have painted scenarios where people might fly into Oakland thinking that they are landing in San Francisco. And one of the other opponents of the name change is San Mateo County, which of course actually is the place where SFO is located.

Eli Wolfe: San Francisco tourism and business associations also really not big fans of this. There are also local communities that are not fans of this. The Oakland NAACP has come out against this, saying that, you know, this is erasure of Oakland’s history and culture. Local environmental groups are also not fans of this, because this will theoretically lead to more air travel to Oakland, which means more air pollution that will impact communities in East Oakland, especially, that have been disproportionately affected by air pollution and other environmental issues.

Eli Wolfe: There’s a coalition of about 75 environmental groups called Stop Oak Expansion. They are focused on the name change, partly because they don’t want to see more passengers coming into Oakland, but also because they feel like this sort of exposes that the airport is trying to justify a big expansion project that has been planned for a couple of years.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Going back to in San Francisco. Are they basically concerned that okay is trying to steal its thunder?

Eli Wolfe: Yeah. And the city of San Francisco is prepared to take some drastic steps here. They they actually sued the city. The city’s argument is basically that by putting San Francisco in Oakland Airport’s title, they are infringing on the trademark of San Francisco’s airport. They do cite, I think, one example in the suit of a case where the new name for Oakland Airport has already showed up for an international carrier.

Eli Wolfe: What they keep talking about is the idea that this is going to be misleading or confusing to people. But as you know, people have pointed out, I mean, there’s a lot of cities around the world that have multiple airports that have similar names. I think London has something like, I don’t know, 5 or 6 different airports that all start with London.

Eli Wolfe: So people question whether there’s actually really going to be confusion there. And I think that some folks believe that what’s actually happening is this will make Oakland potentially more competitive to San Francisco. So airport officials in San Francisco and business leaders, they have a real market incentive to not see this go through.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What responses have you heard from readers, especially in Oakland, about the name change?

Eli Wolfe: People are mixed on it. Some folks have taken kind of a practical stance, sort of like aligning with the port, saying this is necessary. They also were citing the fact that Oakland is facing a massive budget deficit this year again. They really want to see tourism dollars flow through the region so that the city can afford to pay for services that people rely on. But, you know, people also are upset about this. And harkening back to what I was mentioning earlier about what the Oakland NAACP has said.

Eli Wolfe: They see it as erasure of the city. Some folks. On Reddit, you saw that there were a number of folks who are not fans of this idea and were asking, why can’t you do something like a headline that says Oakland San Francisco Airport or Oakland Golden Gate International? Why not highlight something unique to Oakland that is eye catching, like call it E-40 international? I don’t know if that would ever really fly with the port, but people are bringing up interesting ideas.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: How likely do you think the name change is actually going to go through?

Eli Wolfe: I think it’s likely the Port commissioners voted unanimously in approval of this. If you listen back to the, April 11th meeting where they granted preliminary approval, the commissioners were unanimous in their support, and they were incredibly enthusiastic about it. Almost all of them shared stories about how convenient it is to travel through Oakland Airport, and how much they hate having to fly through San Francisco Airport.

Eli Wolfe: They did allow this sort of several week period where they’re going to continue collecting feedback from members of the community, or at least receiving feedback if anyone wants to contact them. But I would say that the safe bet is that they are going to approve this name change, even with the pending lawsuit in front of them.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Yeah, I know you asked the Port of Oakland for comment on that lawsuit, and their response was pretty interesting. They they wrote to you in part, quote, we will vigorously defend our right to claim our spot on the San Francisco Bay. We are standing up for Oakland and our East Bay community. I mean, kind of dramatic, I got to say like a pretty strong response. I’m curious what you make of that.

Eli Wolfe: Yeah. I mean, I think that this is really for them. This is a big step for not just Oakland but the East Bay. I should note Oakland relies heavily on business travel and that hasn’t recovered since the pandemic. So they really need something to work out here where they will get more travel coming through here. This isn’t just a rebrand. This is really trying to make a play to make Oakland more relevant, both in the Bay.

Eli Wolfe: But I mean around the world. They are quite literally trying to put Oakland on the map in a way that makes it relevant to people, makes it attractive to people. So the stakes are really high here, even though this boils down to a name change, which I think some people think might feel a little silly.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I thank you so much for chatting with us about this and for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

Eli Wolfe: Yeah. Thank you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Eli Wolfe, City Hall reporter for the Oaklandside. This 18 minute conversation with Eli was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. I scored this episode and added all the tape. Our senior editor is Alan Montecillo. Music courtesy of Universal Production Music and First Call Music.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: The Bay is a listener supported production of KQED Public Media in San Francisco. You can support our work by becoming a KQED Sustaining Member, which you can do by going to KQED.org/Donate. And I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you next time.

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