Boom in international flights puts strain on Sea-Tac facilities

Staff writerAugust 28, 2013 

It’s almost noon when Korean Air Flight 19, a Boeing 777-200 from Seoul, South Korea, noses into its gate at Sea-Tac Airport’s South Satellite Terminal. The Korean flight is one of nine international flights that will arrive at Sea-Tac between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Passengers streaming from the Korean Air plane flood into the international arrivals corridor that rings the South Satellite. As the line leading to the airport’s arrivals processing facility one floor below begins to back up, airport personnel divert Seoul passengers in the other direction, forming a long queue to await room in the immigration lines.

One floor below, passengers from the Korean Air flight and other flights that have arrived earlier, All Nippon Airways from Tokyo, Lufthansa from Frankfurt, Delta from Amsterdam, and Paris and Hainan from Beijing, solidly pack the area in front of the almost three dozen immigration clearing stations. After the Korean flight arrived, Asiana arrived from Seoul and Emirates arrived from Dubai.

Passengers from Seoul and other international cities, who might wait as long as 90 minutes on a bad day to complete the customs, immigration and baggage claim process, are witnessing firsthand the results of a boom in international flights at Sea-Tac. Those passengers must funnel through an international arrivals facility substantially unaltered since the South Satellite Terminal was built 40 years ago.

Twelve new international flights have been added to Sea-Tac’s schedule since 2007, and Delta Air Lines, which has made Sea-Tac its West Coast international hub, recently announced it will add two more destinations next summer – Hong Kong and Seoul.

Already weekly summer international flights have increased from 110 last year to 128 this year. Those additional flights, and the size increases of planes flying them, have meant 5,200 additional international passengers at Sea-Tac each week.

If those flight arrivals were scattered evenly throughout the day, the arrivals hall could easily handle them. But the midday peak, when several planes from both Europe and Asia arrive within a short period, is straining the airport’s facilities to near capacity, said Elizabeth Leavitt, the airport’s director of aviation planning and environmental programs.

On some days, as many as 10 planes arrive during that period.

The airport has tried to get the airlines to spread the flights more broadly throughout the day, but other issues, including the timing of connecting flights at either ends of the international routes, airport curfews and capacity limits at destination airports, loom larger than Sea-Tac’s international rush hour concerns.

The airport has taken interim measures to address the rush-hour issues.

The present international baggage claim area has only four carousels. To increase the capacity of those carousels, the airport has hired workers to turn bags upright as they emerge from the conveyor. Those same workers stack the baggage three deep on the rotating carousel to create more capacity. Ideally, the airport would have a carousel for every flight to eliminate the confusion of baggage from different flights being intermingled on a single carousel.

The present capacity crunch has Sea-Tac planners moving forward on a new plan to increase the airport’s international arrivals capacity before the situation reaches meltdown levels.

While most days passengers can count on moving through the process in 30 to 40 minutes, any glitch in the system – early or late arrivals, mechanical breakdowns at the airport or exceptional circumstances – can back up the lines, cause missed connections and exacerbate human frustrations.

On a recent day during the midday rush, Charles Goedken, airport duty manager for the international operation, was called away from a tour of the facilities because of a gate crisis. One of the international arrivals gates was already under construction and out of service, and the passenger bridge on another had just failed because of a mechanical problem.

With no other international gates immediately available, the airport would either have to move an empty plane waiting to take on its departing passengers to another gate or park an international arrival on the tarmac and bus passengers to the arrival facility.

If Sea-Tac can’t comfortably handle arriving international passengers, the airport could see itself losing additional international flights and their passengers to rival airports such as Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco, Leavitt said.

Airport planners have looked at several ways to solve the problem.

One obvious solution would be to expand the arrivals facility by expanding the South Satellite, but that would involve disrupting the already overstressed arrival operations.

The baggage claim hall, for instance, is located 40 to 50 feet below ground at the same level as the trains that take passengers to the main terminal. Expanding it would involve extensive excavations and taking several existing gates out of service while construction is in progress.

And expanding the arrivals facility at the South Satellite wouldn’t deal with another pinch point in the passenger arrivals process – the train itself.

That train has limited capacity to handle higher loads, said Goedken. Increasing customs and immigration and baggage capacity at the satellite terminal would only move the lines from the immigration kiosks to the train entrance.

The airport’s preferred solution is to build a new international arrivals facility attached to the main terminal. That facility would be connected to the South Satellite gates either with a skybridge or a tunnel.

Initial projections estimate the cost of the new facility at $300 million to $400 million. Those costs would be paid by the airlines and their international passengers.

The new facility would be over what is now a bus arrivals and departure lot on the east side of the airport’s A Concourse.

Locating the arrivals facility there would allow the airport to expand the number of international arrivals gates from the present 11 to 17, expand the baggage claim area and end the practice of requiring arriving Seattle international passengers from having to claim their baggage twice — once at the international arrivals facility and again at the central terminal after they put their bags on a conveyer that transports them there from the satellite.

The additional international arrival gates would be created on the airport’s A Concourse and connected to the arrivals facility with a secure passageway.

Leavitt said planners are considering two versions of that plan. Under one scenario, all arrivals processing would be moved to the new building. Under the other, arrivals operations would be split between the existing facility and a smaller new building.

The airport planner said airport staffers favor the single facility because it would simplify the customs and immigration process and eliminate confusion among passengers.

The project schedule calls for port commission authorization and selection of a design-build team early next year. Construction would be complete in 2018.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663 John.gillie@ thenewstribune.com

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