Fix in the works for big Sea-Tac bottleneck
An expansion that would cost hundreds of millions is in the works at Sea-Tac Airport, where officials say business is crippled by lack of space and facilities for international arrivals.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Northwest Travel Guides
Three planes packing 896 people arrived within 13 minutes of each other — and the passengers had to get through an immigration checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that's designed to hold half that number.
It was a normal morning at the airport, operations managers said. A normal morning they can't sustain much longer.
Several times a week, early or late arrivals lead to so many planes in such a narrow window of time that Customs can't process them all, Customs and Border Protection Chief Donald Kalbach said. People must be kept onboard, causing passengers to miss connecting flights.
For the past 10 years, "we've been bending over backward to try and squeeze every little bit of capacity we have out of the existing facility," Airport Managing Director Mark Reis told Port of Seattle commissioners at a June meeting.
Controlling the flight times so that arrivals can't stack up is not on the table. It was "universally rejected by the airlines," and the Port didn't want to restrict flights to certain times, Airport Operations Manager Nick Harrison said.
For now, the airport is putting a $24 million Band-Aid on the problem by adding waiting space and two new baggage-claim devices, a project expected to take about two years. It also is upping the number of immigration inspection booths from 20 to 30 to help reduce the lines for passengers waiting to have their passports and IDs checked.
But the number of flights to and from Asia and Europe is increasing, with 13 more per week between July and September this year than last summer. And airport officials are calling for a major expansion of Sea-Tac's Federal Inspection Services.
There are two designs on the table, winnowed down from four in 2007. The project would take five to seven years to complete, Harrison said.
One option would expand the capacity of the current Customs facility at the south satellite, the building that houses all international arrivals. The other would add an entirely new area onto Concourse A and institute a "flying bridge" between the south satellite building and the new space.
Both would cost hundreds of millions. Airlines, not taxpayers, would foot the bill.
"It's a tough sell," Michael Ehl, director of aviation operations, said at the commission meeting. But he stressed a change has to be made.
"We're behind the curve," Ehl said. "We've been very, perhaps overly, sensitive to the airlines' cost concerns. So now we need to catch up."
Building on the current site would be complicated by the airport using the same facility 20 hours every day. That's the case with the $24 million midterm expansion, Harrison said, which he likened to "rebuilding your house while you're living it."
But airlines favor the option because it means they'd be able to expand in pieces and pay as they go, Harrison said.
With a whole new building, airlines would have to pony up the hundreds of millions before a customer could ever use the space.
The Port prefers that design, which would correct the current layout that forces passengers to claim their luggage twice after going through immigration. Sea-Tac is one of the only airports in the nation with the double-claim problem.
"The situation we have is really quite embarrassing, frankly," Reis told Port commissioners.
For now, the airport is desperately marketing Global Entry kiosks at the south terminal as a way to reduce the inspections bottleneck.
U.S. citizens, permanent residents and some international customers can join the program if they pay $100 and are screened. Once they're members they can scan their own documents at one of the airport's three kiosks and avoid lines.
"If you ever waited in an international line here, you'd pay $100 on the spot," Harrison said.
But the machines stood empty last week, while hundreds of passengers passed through the crowded inspections booths nearby, taking as long as an hour. Only 1 percent of passengers use Global Entry; the airport has a goal of 5 percent by the end of the year.
Jessie Van Berkel: 206-464-3192 or email@example.com
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