Stratospheric Growth at Sea-Tac Warrants Possible Expansions

Sea-Tac growth continues to exceed expectations. How will our airport be able to handle the crowds?

As crowds surge in the security line at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on a recent day, a uniformed man and woman—until that moment standing quietly by the side of the line—suddenly swoop in and open a new security lane.

These low-key personnel are called “pathfinders.” Their only job? To rejigger the security lanes leading to passenger screening and ensure maximum speed for travelers.

Watching the action, Perry Cooper, a Sea-Tac Airport spokesman, sighs. The lanes now cut a good chunk of the hallway in half, blocking easy access to the shops, restaurants and restrooms on either side of the corridor. It’s not the friendliest or most attractive solution for either travelers or the merchants, he notes, but there’s little choice. A few years ago, the pathfinders weren’t needed on a constant basis. But explosive growth at Sea-Tac—stratospheric, really—means they’re now regularly called on to make the most of available, limited airport facilities.

How much growth? Try top of the charts. The airport has been tops in the nation in growth for two years running. Passenger traffic at Sea-Tac set a record for the fifth year in a row in 2015, according to the Port of Seattle, which oversees the airport: About 42.3 million travelers came or went from the airport. That was about a 13 percent increase over the previous year (including a 14.5 percent increase in international passengers). That means roughly 115,000 travelers surge through Sea-Tac every day. In 2014, about 37.5 million passengers passed through it, a 7.7 percent increase over the previous year. Already this year, travel estimates have exceeded initial projections, says Cooper.

By 2034, airport traffic is projected to reach a staggering 66 million passengers annually. But those crazy numbers could come even sooner, Cooper says: “We’ve been outstripping projections like crazy.”

Passenger numbers are growing throughout the nation—but more flights by Delta to Asia is part of the equation at Sea-Tac. That airline, which has made Sea-Tac a hub, calls Seattle an important part of its business strategy.

The growth is coupled with this reality: Sea-Tac has one of the smallest footprints of any major airport in the nation and is hemmed in by three suburban cities, rather than rural or industrial land. The result: a lot of projects and improvements in the works at the airport to ease congestion and—although it’s likely to face significant opposition—consideration of a second airport in the region to handle the growth.

Steps are already underway to bring regional passenger flights to Paine Field as soon as 2017...but the project still faces a number of hurdles. PHOTO CREDIT: Alaska Airlines

Problems that are likely to spin out from Sea-Tac’s growth include severe congestion along the taxiway in front of the terminal, caused by an ever growing number of jets coming and going from gates; delays for departing aircraft due to runway crossings by arriving aircraft; more circling by arriving aircraft as they wait for a runway; and longer delays on the ground because of the lack of gate availability.

Meanwhile, inside the terminal, ticketing counters grow ever more crowded, restaurant lines get longer for harried travelers trying to grab a bite to eat, and security checks can take so long that even careful passengers sometimes miss flights. Alaska Airlines recently advised its passengers to arrive two hours before a domestic flight out of Sea-Tac or three hours for an international flight due to longer-than-normal security lines. In April, TSA announced its intention to add more agents at Sea-Tac. Outside, roads leading to drop-off and pickup zones are clogged, and airport parking grows ever scarcer.

The growth isn’t all bad, of course. The airport is a critical regional asset, with more than 170,000 jobs attributable to airport activity, meaning $6.1 billion in total personal income and $16.3 billion in business revenue a year, according to port statistics. Every new international flight generates an estimated $75 million annually in direct and indirect economic impact to the region.

To cope with the growth, Sea-Tac will need more ticketing counters; security checkpoints; baggage handling capacity; gates for planes; parking for cars; roads to accommodate traffic to, from and through the airport; plus more restaurants, shops and other amenities for travelers. Also more rental car parking, improved public transportation and long-term public parking. And more aircraft storage and maintenance facilities, cargo plane facilities and fire department protection.

In the short term, the port has $2 billion in projects planned to resolve some of these issues. They include a $600 million arrival facility for international passengers, expansion of the north satellite and an additional eight gates, for a total of 20. The first phase is scheduled to open in mid-2018. A spanking new, high-speed baggage-handling system, at a cost of $321 million, is likewise being built to handle airport growth.

But last fall, Port of Seattle CEO Ted Fick told The Seattle Times editorial board that even with all this remodeling, Sea-Tac could reach capacity in as soon as six to 10 years at its current rate of growth. The region needs to look at using other airports to absorb some of the growth, he says. It’s only logical—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C.—all have more than one major airport serving their metropolitan areas.

Of course, our region already has several other airports: Boeing Field in Seattle, Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), south of Tacoma, and Paine Field in Everett. Which of those should take some of Sea-Tac’s traffic isn’t yet clear. Although Boeing Field, just south of the downtown core, might seem like a natural choice, its proximity to Sea-Tac means air traffic at the two airports wouldn’t be a safe distance apart, so it’s almost certainly a no-go. And that means JBLM and Paine Field may well be getting ready for their close-ups.


In fact, steps are already underway to bring regional passenger flights to Paine Field as soon as 2017. In 2015, the Snohomish County Council approved a lease option with Propeller Airports to build a terminal at Paine Field, and earlier this year the company unveiled its plans for a passenger terminal. But the project still faces a number of hurdles including design approval and permits, and perhaps the biggest one—convincing neighbors that a commercial airport in their neighborhood is a good thing.

Residents have fiercely protested the idea of commercial flights at Paine in the past. James Robert Deal, a Lynnwood real estate broker and attorney, is so opposed to the idea, he’s devoted a website to stopping any such notion. Deal (also a candidate for governor) writes: “Promises were made that Paine Field wouldn’t expand, so miles of high-value homes were built under its flight path…a big passenger airport would lower property values and property-tax revenues. It would tie up land that would be better used for aircraft-related industries and high-paying jobs. Instead, we would have hotels, parking lots, strip joints and low-paying jobs.”

One the other hand, Deal believes JBLM is a logical choice: “It has almost unlimited room for expansion. It has no built-up urban areas around it. It could serve the population to the north via Link light rail, which could be extended south from Tacoma. There are already many joint-use military-civilian airports.”

But, there have also been noise complaints over the years from the greater Tacoma community regarding military jet traffic (though plenty of supporters tolerate military jet flight noise as “the sound of freedom”), so adding commercial jet traffic to the skies there likely wouldn’t be an easy sell, either. There’s little sign, however, of significant organized opposition at present.

Whatever other airport is the long-term solution for Sea-Tac’s overcrowding, a choice would need to be made soon, because it will certainly take a long, long time to bring another airport up to snuff, given environmental reviews and the regulatory and permitting process. And while the location of another airport is uncertain, one thing is clear: It’s not going to make the community surrounding it happy. But there are at least two truths about airports. When we travel, we like them to be nearby and convenient. But when we’re home, we’d rather they be far away.

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