‘Unacceptable wait times’: Sea-Tac Airport responds to weekend security lines

After a weekend of lines that reached near three hours, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) said that it’s working on a plan to help prevent hours-long wait times like many passengers experienced on Sunday.

On Sunday afternoon, the security checkpoint line stretched into the parking garage, double-backing several times.

Some travelers said the wait took two-and-a-half hours.

“It is just ... unfathomable the amount of people that they were filing through there,” Matt Hagwood, a passenger who missed his flight, said.

On Tuesday, SEA acknowledged general screening passengers experienced “unacceptable” wait times, after customers had been asking what happened and what the airport can do to fix it.

The airport identified three main reasons that all contributed to the weekend challenges:

  1. Summer traveler volume has been continuing into the normally slower fall season, something that hasn’t been seen since before the pandemic. On Sunday, between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., TSA screened more passengers than any other morning since the pandemic.
  2. The pandemic changed the dynamic of travel trends. For example, passenger traffic after Labor Day typically drops about 15%. TSA anticipated this change and has been bringing in additional staff to cover the summer peak. However, the additional staffing ended on Labor Day.
  3. Maintenance and construction had taken two lanes offline at one of the checkpoints.

While it seemed initially that the arrival of cruise ship passengers might have been a contributing factor, Sea-Tac clarified that it is “not blaming the cruise ship situation.”

“We’ve had that all summer and it hasn’t been problematic,” Sea-Tac Airport Media Relations Manager Perry Cooper told KIRO 7. “For a very specific time period that can be a contributing factor for half an hour or so if several buses come in at that time, but Sunday was a situation that lasted nearly four hours, much longer than any specific cruise ship busing. That concern may have come from somewhere else.”

Travel expert Steve Danishek similarly theorized that cruise ship traffic likely shouldn’t have been a significant factor.

“First off, let’s get rid of the cruise ship problem because we’ve had the same number of cruise ships come in every week all summer,” he said.

The airport said that many passengers from cruise ships returned to Seattle and hopped on planes to other parts of the country.

“What we’re hearing is they were running short-staffed, they were bringing TSA agents in from other airports to help out but when those folks had to go home, that made the problem worse,” Danishek said.

Once the backup began on Sunday, TSA staff opened more general screening lanes at Checkpoints 1 and 4 to help, morning staff stayed late and midday staff came in early to help end the congestion.

SEA said the airport, airlines and TSA will be adding more staff for the upcoming weekend, although they also stated Wednesday that they “do not expect such lines to repeat” during that time.

They also recommend these steps to help with your trip through the airport:

  1. Use the SEA Spot Saver service, a virtual line queuing service.
  2. Sign-up for PreCheck or Clear.
  3. Arrive early. The suggested time is two hours early for a domestic flight and three hours for an international flight.
  4. If you can, book a midday trip out of SEA. Nearly 80% of flights take place in the morning.
  5. Use the SEA app “FlySEA” to monitor security wait times in real time.
  6. Consider reducing your carry-ons by checking your luggage.
  7. Don’t carry knives and oversized liquids (and more) that can cause checkpoint delays with bag checks.

As cruise ships bring thousands of passengers to the city every day, travelers should expect many of them to make their way to the airport. For example, on Oct. 1, four cruise ships are expected to arrive in Seattle: the Norwegian Bliss, Seabourn Odyssey, ms Eurodam and Ovation of the Seas. These ships will bring a total of nearly 13,000 passengers. Travelers can find cruise ship schedules here.

Unfortunately, if you missed your flight due to long lines, there is no recourse according to Danishek.

“The airlines were trying to wait as long as they could to get as many people on before they left,” he said.

At about 10:24 a.m. Monday, wait times for general screening were hovering between 20 to 60 minutes, but were dropping, according to the Port of Seattle.