‘We’ve outgrown this airport’: Is solution to Sea-Tac’s struggles with long lines on the way?

SEATAC, Wash. — Travel troubles have been plaguing Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), and it’s not just because of winter weather.

Capacity problems are causing very long TSA lines and it’s leading people to spill into the parking garage more often than ever.

“I think we’ve outgrown this airport,” said Herbert Edwards, a long-time traveler through SEA.

“Yes, I feel like this one is too crowded,” said Pankaj Patil, another traveler.

Lance Lyttle is the managing director at SEA and knows the airport has a problem.

“If you come to the airport any time during peak, especially during the summer, you’ll see lines going outside the building,” Lyttle said.

TSA lines stretching into the garage made KIRO7 news coverage in 2019. It also happened in 2021 during the pandemic and made the news again. That time it was because of six feet of social distancing, combined with a TSA agent shortage.

But now it’s becoming more common. Lines stretched out to the parking garage in September, November, and December of 2022 – the September incident even making national headlines in the Washington Post this year. Wait times topped three hours, according to passengers.

There are major construction projects coming to SEA to help – and an unexpected explanation for why the long lines are becoming more common.

Part of the problem is traffic at the airport has been steeply ramping up for years until the pandemic hit. But now, the increased flow of travelers has basically returned to normal, reaching 51 million passengers in 2019.

Sea-Tac International Airport is the country’s eighth busiest, but the square footage pales in size compared to other airports that see similar, or even fewer travelers.

“We are at 2,500 acres. San Francisco is about 4,800 acres. DFW is 17,000 acres. Denver is 33,000 acres,” Lyttle said. “We’re putting a lot of people through that very small footprint that we have,” he said.

That means the airport has been forced to get creative. Airport spokesperson Perry Cooper says actually, the long winding lines that flow into the garage are intentional and part of the solution to crowding.

“It’s actually part of our overflow plan. What we found, it is the most efficient,” Cooper said. He admits it can be a struggle and can seem counterintuitive. However, because SEA doesn’t have the space to have zig-zagging lines of people six or seven rows deep, once people fill up at a TSA checkpoint, people start clogging the hallway.

So airport personnel funnel people to the skybridge and into the parking garage in a single file. Once people approach the checkpoints, they get directed to the shortest line.

“This setup makes it seem like, ‘I don’t know why they’re making me do this.’ But there is reason behind it,” Cooper said.

Another project that will help with the long TSA lines – the airport is actually moving TSA Checkpoint 1 down to the baggage claim level. That means bag carousel 1 is going away, and the entire space will be used as a new location for people to get through security. The project is expected to be done in early 2024.

The entire space near Alaska ticketing is also getting overhauled in what’s called the “Gateway Project.” Building out isn’t an option, so the airport is building up anywhere possible. The mezzanine area is getting eliminated and the area reorganized. It is estimated to be done in early 2026.

Take the escalators down, and you’ll soon find the airport maximizing the unused space on the skybridge level. Empty spaces will be filled with kiosks where travelers can check in. Some of the construction has already started on the baggage claim level to move around storage space and make more room for travelers waiting to pick up their luggage.

The sheer scale of all the construction projects set to happen at the airport is mind-boggling. A back-of-the-napkin estimate on cost is $10 billion, and that was a figure approximated years ago.

That price tag does include another major project – turning Concourse C into a four-story building.

The concourse currently has low ceilings and overflowing travelers are often found sitting on the floor.

“I mean, this was 1970s. We were thinking of a much smaller place. The region was a lot smaller, was not growing as fast,” Cooper said.

He said for example, even arrivals drive was designed in 1969 to only handle 25 million passengers a year – not double that, which is the current flow.

The new Concourse C building will be filled with shops, restaurants, and seating.

“This is going to be one of the most dramatic spaces,” Cooper said.

Perhaps the biggest construction project the airport will soon tackle will be building a brand new terminal in a new, large building. The cell phone lot is getting completely demolished. And the Doug Fox paid parking lot – on land owned by the port – is getting torn down, too.

“Building the new terminal is going to be - it’s almost like building another airport,” Lyttle said.

The new terminal will have 19 gates and its own security checkpoints. It will likely be the biggest new construction since the airport added a third runway that was completed in 2008.

That project took 16 years, court battles, 500,000 truckloads of fill dirt, and a billion dollars. It is the airport’s final runway.

“We have an understanding or an agreement with the neighboring communities that we’re not going to be building any more runways. So the three runways we have, that’s it,” Lyttle said.

“At some point in time, even with the new 19 gates that we’re going to be having, this airport is going to run out of the capability to accommodate the growth. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re very supportive of a state-led effort to site a new airport,” Lyttle said.

As we’ve reported, a state commission is due to recommend a site for a new, Sea-Tac-sized airport this summer, likely in Pierce or Thurston county, though there is unanimous strong opposition from neighbors and many local leaders.

Meanwhile, as the construction ramps up at SEA, Lyttle acknowledges it will be difficult for passengers. He says there will be plenty of signage to help direct people through the ever-changing landscape.

Despite the challenges, travelers are still showing their love for SEA. Sea-Tac International Airport was just rated by Skytrax the Best Airport in North America in 2022.

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