The number of passengers coming through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, just a trickle for weeks, is starting once more to rise.
That has Port of Seattle officials concerned about how to ensure social-distancing precautions as the airport grows more crowded.
“There’s one goal,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman at a Tuesday meeting of the commission. “Make Sea-Tac the safest airport in the country.”
Some passengers, though, say they’re surprised it’s taking the airport so long to implement some safety measures, like temperature checks and mask requirements, that have been in place at other airports for weeks.
Gloria Gottesma flew back to Mercer Island from her winter home in Palm Desert last week.
She said she noticed so few health precautions at Sea-Tac that felt like she was in “the Twilight Zone.”
“I mean, is nobody reading the news?” she asked.
After the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March, passenger volumes at Sea-Tac plummeted to around 5% of 2019 levels. Roughly 3,800 people were traveling through the airport daily, down from 55,000 before the virus struck.
Passenger volumes have been so low that “sometimes it can seem like it’s your own personal airport,” Sea-Tac spokesperson Perry Cooper wrote in an email.
But in recent days, travel has picked up. The number of passengers in the airport increased by nearly one-third from the last week of April to the first week of May. Monday was the first day since the start of the pandemic that saw more than 5,000 travelers go through Sea-Tac.
That’s added new urgency to Sea-Tac efforts to boost cleanliness and health precautions as it works to restore passengers’ confidence in air travel.
A new messaging campaign will remind travelers to stand 6 feet apart in lines at ticket kiosks and screening checkpoints. Seats at gates have been separated to encourage social distancing. The airport is installing sneeze guards for parking lot cashiers and TSA ID checkers and at other “strategic locations” in the airport, as well as 275 touchless paper towel dispensers. Passengers can find the closest hand sanitizer station on the airport’s app.
Only 10 travelers are allowed in each train car or bus, and the train station at B concourse has been closed altogether because staff noticed passengers were flouting the rules. Travelers transiting between B and C concourse must now go by foot.
Starting May 18, travelers and Port staff will be required to cover their face in public spaces at the airport. And the coronavirus could boost the use of controversial technologies like facial recognition because they enable social distancing.
Temperature checks are next on the list: Sea-Tac officials are developing a temperature screening program for departing and arriving passengers that could be implemented by June 9.
“We expect to see a rising number of people passing through Sea-Tac as social distancing and travel restrictions ease,” said Port of Seattle executive Steven Metruck at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s important for the Port to take a leadership role.”
But some travelers have noted that other airports, including in Hawaii, Colorado and California, took similar precautions earlier in the pandemic. Hawaii began checking arriving passengers’ temperatures in early April, and required everyone to wear face masks in public settings later that month. Travelers through Los Angeles and Denver are required to wear masks, and most major airlines began mandating passengers wear masks Monday.
Returning home to Kingston from Maui on Monday morning, Anne Walker said health standards at airports in Kahului and Honolulu were much more rigorous than what she observed at Sea-Tac.
“When we got off in Seattle, there were no controls at all,” Walker said. “It was such a contrast to Hawaii that it was a bit of a surprise.” At Sea-Tac, she said, she noticed few people wearing masks — not janitorial staff, not people standing in line for coffee.
And, she said, Alaska Airlines didn’t seem to live up to its masking requirements.
On her flight from Honolulu, “passengers were getting on the plane not wearing their masks. Crew were removing one side of their mask to talk to passengers, or wearing a mask that didn’t cover their nose, just the mouth,” Walker said.
First-class and premier-member passengers were boarded first, she said, so she and her husband needed to walk past many others before reaching their seats in the middle of the plane. There were no instructions to ensure social distancing when they exited the plane, she said.
Alaska Airlines spokesperson Ray Lane said Walker was noticing growing pains.
“As we expedite a new level of social distancing and additional safety requirements during travel, there is inevitably a transition time as we all become more comfortable and the changes more commonplace,” Lane wrote in an email.
Sea-Tac could still do more to enforce social distancing, especially in still-packed train cars, other travelers say.
Thomas Geisness and his wife, Janice, landed at Sea-Tac May 1, on their way home from Kauai. Boarding the train to the main concourse, they noticed “passengers jammed themselves in the car,” Geisness wrote in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee describing the experience, with about a foot of space between each passenger, many of whom had taken off their masks.
“This exposure is exactly what you are directing people not to do,” Geisness wrote.