San Francisco sues Oakland over proposed airport name change

As promised, San Francisco's city attorney sued Oakland on Thursday for planning to rename its airport as San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.

David Chiu and a team of attorneys filed the trademark infringement and unfair competition suit in U.S. District Court saying that the Metropolitan Oakland International Airport is seeking to bump up its passenger numbers and profits by "unlawfully" using San Francisco International Airport's protected name.

"Travelers will very likely be confused and book tickets to the unintended airport, thinking that the "San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport" is SFO and arrive in the wrong place, a mistake leading to missed flights and connections, among other problems," the suit states. "Other travelers may think there is a business relationship between SFO and Defendant’s airport, when there is not. Use of the Infringing mark, and the potential for confusion and mistakes, has already started with at least one airline."

Chiu said in his suit that he supports Oakland boosting its traffic but that they are so quick to want to re-brand that they didn't stop to "consider reasonable alternative names" that wouldn't cause so much confusion. 

He said that San Francisco has tried several times to "engage in a constructive dialogue…all to no avail." 

Chiu's suit shouldn't be a surprise. 

He threatened that he would sue days ahead of the Port of Oakland's Board of Commissioners unanimous April 11 resolution to rename the airport. 

As Chiu sees it, SFO began operating in 1927, and has used the name "San Francisco Airport" or "San Francisco International Airport" throughout most of its history. 

San Francisco also has owned the U.S. federal trademark registrations for the marks "San Francisco International Airport" since 2012, Chiu said, with the first date of use in 1954, and the assigned airport code "SFO" together with SFO's logo since 2007.

The lawsuit offers a few new details, however, including the fact that Oakland leaders called SFO's airport director just 30 minutes before issuing a news release on March 29 to propose the name change.

After Chiu threatened to sue, Oakland officials didn't back down, arguing that no one owns the name "San Francisco Bay Area."

"The Port’s proposed renaming does not infringe upon SFO’s mark," Port of Oakland Attorney Mary Richardson told KTVU in a statement.  "SFO cannot lay claim to the geographically-descriptive term ‘San Francisco,’ let alone claim exclusive rights to the San Francisco Bay."

Richardson added that travelers understand that the San Francisco Bay— "like virtually every other major metropolitan area throughout the world" —can contain more than one airport. 

"The Port will take all reasonable measures to ensure clarity for travelers with respect to OAK’s geographic location and distinctiveness," Richardson said. 

The squabble over the airport names comes as Oakland has been trying to improve its reputation as the city's vibrant culture and beauty have been overshadowed by crime, forcing some local businesses near the Oakland airport, like In-N-Out Burger, to close.

Oakland airport officials have said travelers who don't know the area often fly into San Francisco’s airport even if their destination is closer to the Oakland airport across the Bay. 

Modifying the name to San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport will change that, they say. The airport’s three-letter code OAK would not change.

"We are standing up for Oakland and the East Bay," Port Commission President Barbara Leslie said in a statement after the vote. "This name will make it clear that OAK is the closest major airport, for 4.1 million people, three national laboratories, the top public university in the country, and California’s Wine Country."

Technically, SFO is not located in San Francisco; it's located in San Mateo County. 

And a drive from Oakland's airport to downtown San Francisco is a few miles shorter than the drive from where SFO is located off US Highway 101. 

"There is no airport in San Francisco," Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said. "But if they want to rename SFO to Millbrae Airport to be more accurate in terms of location, that would be fine. And we could rename OAK to Oakland Sunny Side of the Bay Airport."