San Francisco sues Oakland over plans to change name of airport

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 12: Travelers walk towards Terminal 1 at Oakland International Airport on April 12, 2024 in Oakland, California. The Board of Commissioners for the Port of Oakland voted on Thursday to proceed with a plan to change the name of Oakland International Airport to the San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport. San Francisco officials are objecting to the proposed name change and have threatened to file a lawsuit arguing it would violate the city's trademark on San Francisco International Airport and would potentially be confusing for people traveling to the area. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The Board of Commissioners for the Port of Oakland wants to change the airport's name to the San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport, but San Francisco officials object. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The fight over a Bay Area airport name change just took a legal turn.

San Francisco filed suit against Oakland to stop the proposed name change of Oakland International Airport to San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport.

Last week, the Port of Oakland's Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to proceed with the change even after San Francisco officials threatened to sue, alleging trademark infringement.

"Those two names are clearly similar and very likely to cause confusion and thus makes for a clear infringement case," said San Francisco City Atty. David Chiu . According to public records, San Francisco International Airport was first registered as a trademark in 2012, was renewed as a trademark in 2022 and is still in good standing.

Read more: This Bay Area airport wants to change its name. The San Francisco airport hates the idea

Oakland says the name change would bring geographic awareness to its airport and help sustain 30,000 jobs and $1.6 billion in revenue. Port officials cited a study showing 30% of domestic travelers are unaware of the airport's location and said that has harmed their ability to offer robust route options.

But Chiu argued the change would hurt the San Francisco airport.

"From our perspective, Oakland is looking to profit off of San Francisco's investments of billions of dollars over decades in our reputation, services and brand," he said. "This is already starting to create confusion and economic harm to SFO."

A lawsuit isn't ideal, Chiu said, but he noted the city has tried to negotiate alternate names with Oakland to no avail.

"They first proposed this on March 29. ... They gave us 30 minutes of advance warning," Chiu said. Additional requests to meet have gone unanswered, he said.

Oakland International Airport officials said in a statement to The Times the renaming does not infringe on SFO's registered trademark.

"We will vigorously defend our right to claim our spot on the San Francisco Bay," officials said. "We are standing up for Oakland and our East Bay community."

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao declined to comment Thursday but previously expressed support for the name change. In an earlier news release, she said the change was about "inviting travelers to discover all that Oakland and the region have to offer."

Read more: Oakland officials vote to rename airport despite San Francisco threatening to sue

Since the initial board vote, at least one airline has adopted the new name in its flight to the Bay Area. Azore Airlines, a Portuguese company, lists San Francisco Bay Oakland International Airport as one option customers can select if they are searching for flights to San Francisco.

In addition to SFO, other San Francisco businesses have the name of the city in federally registered trademarks. But Bruce Sunstein, a patent attorney and intellectual property strategist, said trademark infringement depends on "whether the usage creates a likelihood of confusion."

"It would seem to me that San Francisco would have a reasonable argument here," Sunstein said.

It's not clear how long the lawsuit might drag out, but Chiu made it clear that the city is exploring all legal options to prevent Oakland's initial vote of approval from proceeding to a second — and final — vote in May.

"We're going to litigate this as long as it takes," he said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.