It is not often that you casually glance out of the airplane window and see the future racing up beside you, glistening in the California sun like a joyriding space catamaran. This happened in San Francisco yesterday as Gadling took part in Virgin’s latest celebration of innovation. Virgin held an event to toast the evolution of flight as well as the opening of Terminal two at San Francisco airport. With plane interiors like neon rimmed London clubs and commercial plans to pierce space with their Galactic platform, Virgin is on an innovatory run that is making them look more and more like the airline industry’s version of Apple.
Our boarding passes listed the departing city as San Francisco and our arrival destination as the future. The flight would circle San Francisco and land at the sparkling new Terminal two. The departure gate teemed with excitement. Muffins were distributed, mimosas swished about, and Rocketman played predictably in the background. Buzz Aldrin rolled in sporting a watch on each hand – one no doubt keeping moon time. The Lieutenant Governor of California, who I first mistook to be Bradley Cooper, addressed the crowd with perfect diction, proclaiming California’s undying support for Virgin America. We were about to “Fly from the Jet Age to the Space Age.”
The plane boarded like any other flight. Groups were announced and everyone shuffled on. The flight attendants crept down the busy aisle offering champagne and water while dodging photographers angling to snap a shot of Virgin chief Richard Branson. Sir Richard ambled down the aisle like a man from the future forced to make his fortunes in a distant past. The throngs of media hung on each charming word he uttered while shuttering away to capture every smile. The pilot took us up into a clear California day that showcased epic views out over San Francisco harbor. White crested waves crashed peacefully below, and a little red bridge connected two landmasses.
As the plane banked a turn and leveled out, a glimmer quickly approached from a distance. The speck drew closer and my eyes adjusted to accept the sight of a spaceship pulling up beside our jet. It was White Knight Two with SpaceShip Two nestled between its massive wings. The spacecraft was unapologetically awesome. It lingered just off our left wing like a boasting UFO. It was the main act and a righteous glimpse into the future of space travel. We flew in formation for the rest of the flight. The passengers on our flight smashed up against the windows, hypnotically drawn to the sight of this strange craft effortlessly gliding through the cloudless day. It was a spaceship, and that is about as awesome as it gets.
The flight to the future touched down at San Francisco’s new T2. The terminal originally opened in 1954, and after many years serving as a relic of the past, was fitted with a $380 million modernist renovation. A press conference drove the point home. It is compared to a five star hotel by the mayor of San Francisco. It is striving to be platinum LEED certified. It glows like the future. The project is under budget and ahead of schedule. Politicians, architects, and airline executives all took their turn at the podium sharing their version of the same story – that Terminal two is the future of airport terminals.
The terminal had the anxious air of a play before the curtain is drawn. Workers hammered away at benches. The entire staff of a Pinkberry was being trained on the whims of demanding yogurt customers. Sticky plastic sheets were peeled off of metal surfaces by men in hard hats with great satisfaction. Everything smelled new. The terminal would open in just days, and everywhere workers were racing to meet this finish line.
Terminal two is considered the greenest domestic terminal in the United States. I heard the term LEED certified maybe a dozen times, either proclaimed loudly in the press conference or overheard from a passing conversation. Virgin America’s commitment to environmental responsibility is readily apparent in their influence over the terminal’s design. The Gensler designed space reflects Virgin’s style while adhering to the goals of sustainability.
The new terminal will be shared by Virgin America and American Airlines. AA was the original occupant of T2, with roots all the way back to 1954. American Airlines unveiled a stunning new Admiral’s Club, also LEED certified.
The terminal includes a “zone of recomposure” where weary travelers can gather themselves and continue on their mission. The zone hosts a massive art installation by Janet Echelman (above). Titled “Every Beating Second” after a line by beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the installations hang elegantly from the ceiling and add to the modern style of the terminal.
The terminal is an exciting glimpse into the future of airports. The cold utilitarian design of years passed is being slowly replaced with comfortable spaces filled with modernist accents and green ambitions. Virgin, American Airlines, and San Francisco should all be proud of their new terminal. T2 is an excellent use of space with no shortage of shopping and food options.
Watching history unfold can be as revolutionary as a kicked in door or as subtle as a whisper. With White Knight Two landing at a commercial airport yesterday, a new step in aviation was taken. Sir Richard Branson casually mentioned that it was likely the first spaceship to ever land at a commercial airport, as though the thought just passed through his head moments before he spoke it. Being casually brash is always a cool angle. It is this cool innovation that drives Virgin towards exciting new ventures. It was revelatory seeing White Knight Two land amongst the Boeings and Airbuses, and it looked a lot like the future gliding into the present.
All photography by Justin Delaney