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David Chiu
San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

City Of San Francisco Vows To Sue Port Of Oakland If Planned Airport Name Change Is Approved

‘Make the airport name unique, but don’t steal another name to do it’

By Evan Symon, April 8, 2024 5:30 pm

San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu announced on Monday that the city of San Francisco would sue the Port of Oakland should a proposed name change of Oakland’s airport goes through on Thursday, charging that the name change would be violating the trademark of “San Francisco International Airport,” as well as being confusing for travelers in the region.

The name change plan from “Oakland International Airport” to “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport” was released in late March, as the Globe reported. According to Oakland Airport officials, the airport’s name is often confusing for travelers, as the name of the airport fails to give the impression just how close the airport is to San Francisco. That lack of understanding, according to airport officials, have also cost the airport major airline routes and passengers. While officials have said that the airport will not be changing their airport code away from OAK or any Oakland visual branding, it would create an overall identity change.

However, San Francisco and San Francisco Airport officials quickly denounced the name proposal, saying it would only confuse travelers with a mix up over the San Francisco Airport name. Many travelers would also likely book wrongly because of the name change, constituting lost connections and a long travel distance between airports.

Oakland officials, angered by the higher than expected backlash against the idea, changed tactics this week and said that the name was now geographic. In a press release, the Port of Oakland also gathered some local officials to make statements on the benefits of the name change. However, as the Globe pointed out, opposition against the name change only grew all across the Bay, with early warnings of possible legal challenges being given to Oakland authorities.

The Port of Oakland remained stubborn over the weekend, planning to move ahead with the name change vote. They even sent out messages over X/Twitter trying to show why the name change is still good for them.

San Francisco officials stepped up on Monday, vowing to sue the Port of Oakland if a name change was approved.

In a letter on Monday, Chiu highlighted not only the confusion that such a name change would cause, but also how it would go against the official trademark of San Francisco International Airport”

“I write to join the City’s strong objections to the proposed renaming of Metropolitan Oakland International Airport to “San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport,” scheduled for consideration at the April 11, 2024 meeting of the Oakland Board of Port Commissioners. I further request that the Oakland Board of Port Commissioners promptly cancel its plans to rename its airport as currently proposed and consider a different name that does not include the words “San Francisco.” Should you continue in these efforts, I intend to pursue legal action to prevent your use of the proposed new name.

As you know, SFO is one of the busiest airports in the world, serving more than 50 million domestic and international passengers in 2023. SFO began operations almost a century ago in 1927, and has used the name “San Francisco Airport” or “San Francisco International Airport” throughout most of its history. The names “San Francisco Airport” and “San Francisco International Airport” are famous and highly recognizable among consumers in connection with the airport services that only SFO provides.

The City owns U.S. federal trademark registrations for the marks “San Francisco International Airport” and the International Air Transport Association assigned airport code SFO together with SFO’s Design Registration. The City has held these registrations for such a long time that they have become incontestable under federal law. That means they constitute conclusive evidence of the validity of the marks as well as the City’s exclusive rights to use the marks. Indeed, there is and only ever has been one airport in the United States that uses ‘San Francisco’ in its name.

Given SFO’s long history with the name ‘San Francisco International Airport’ (and previously ‘San Francisco Airport’), its high recognition in the marketplace, and its trademark status, the proposed new name will be very highly likely to cause confusion or mistake among consumers and the public generally. That very high risk of confusion or mistake is because consumers will either misunderstand Oakland International Airport’s physical location (i.e., that it’s in San Francisco rather than Oakland) or mistakenly believe that there is a formal relationship or connection between the two airports that does not exist.”

More specifically, the proposed new name ‘San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport’ incorporates the entirety of the City’s registered mark, with the first two words of the proposed name being identical and most prominent. The location of ‘San Francisco’ at the beginning of the name further enhances the very high likelihood of consumer and public confusion. Oakland International Airport’s published statements suggest that it chose to include the term ‘San Francisco’ in its new name to intentionally divert travelers who may be unfamiliar with the relevant geography and lead them to believe that the Oakland International Airport is located in San Francisco or has a business relationship with SFO, which it does not. While the proposed new name is very likely to cause confusion and mistakes broadly, the problem will be particularly acute for an audience of international travelers who may not speak or read English. Those international travelers comprise an essential part of SFO’s consumer base.

For all these reasons, based on the undisputed similarity and the resulting very high likelihood of confusion between the City’s registered trademark ‘San Francisco International Airport’ and the proposed ‘San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport,’ if you proceed with the proposed renaming, the City has strong legal claims, including, among others, federal trademark infringement and federal trademark dilution claims, and related common law and state claims for trademark infringement, that we intend to bring in court against the Port of Oakland, as a department of the City of Oakland. If the Port of Oakland instead elects to proceed with the proposed name change, then unfortunately the City will have no choice other than to pursue necessary legal action.”

Oakland has yet to respond to letter

While Oakland officials have yet to respond to Oakland’s letter on Monday, San Francisco city officials backed up what Chiu said on Monday.

“I told you last week that there might be some legal problems over this,” explained an anonymous assistant to a San Francisco City Official on Friday. “This is what I meant. There as no way that San Francisco was going to let this happen. Oakland is not looking at the reality of the situation. Hopefully those at the Port of Oakland will pay heed to this. If not, what can come is a swift lawsuit and injunction forcing Oakland to not change their name.”

“All those suggestions instead to name the airport after a famous Oakland figure is actually much better. It’s still Oakland, but you get to tie it in to the area still with a known name. Honolulu, Columbus, and many others did this in recent years and saw either major improvements or increased number of flights. Make the airport name unique, but don’t steal another name to do it. Besides, Oakland, like San Francisco, has better things to do then start a years long legal battle over airport names.”

The Oakland airport name change, which was first proposed back in 2007, is to be considered at the next Port of Oakland meeting on April 11th.

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3 thoughts on “City Of San Francisco Vows To Sue Port Of Oakland If Planned Airport Name Change Is Approved

  1. If the public is geographically ignorant of their destination, that would be a bigger problem than Oakland’s identity issue. Appropriating San Francisco into the name of the their airport is like competing as a cheap imitation (although SFO has lost its appeal… its beauty disfigured by street camps and crime).
    Instead of rising above civic desecration and decay, Oakland affirms the proclamations of Gertrude Stein:
    A rose is a rose is a rose… or “there is no there there.”

    1. Apparently the S-hole city of San Francisco does not want the bigger S-hole city of Oakland to appropriate its name. Dueling S-hole cities. Priceless.

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