Seattle-Tacoma International Airport continues to grow, updating its facilities not only to better handle passenger traffic but also to offer travelers a more convenient experience. That growth, however, comes with a ceiling, and Washington must be ready to meet rising air-travel demand as the airport reaches its limits.
Sea-Tac’s latest improvement is the International Arrivals Facility, which officially opens in May, and which more than doubles capacity — up to 2,600 passengers per hour. It also provides faster passport processing, more bag-claim carousels and reduces passenger connection time from 90 to 75 minutes.
The most striking element of the new facility is the 780-foot-long aerial bridge hovering 85 feet above an active taxiway, with views of Mount Rainier and the Olympics welcoming international travelers to the Pacific Northwest.
The costly project, shepherded by Port of Seattle and airport officials, is an achievement Washington can be proud of.
The nearly billion-dollar upgrade is also expected to help attract more international routes, each of which is estimated to produce about $74 million in annual economic impact, according to officials. This would add to the airport’s already impressive contribution to our region’s bottom line.
The airport directly supports $5.6 billion in economic activity, according to a 2018 report, and generates more than $600 million in state and local taxes. One of the country’s busiest airports, Sea-Tac hit almost 52 million total passengers in 2019, a record.
Before the pandemic, the airport had seen almost a decade of continuous passenger growth. But as 2020 ended, there was a more than 60% drop from the previous year. Recovery in 2021 was impressive, but it was still more than 15 million passengers short of 2019 totals.
Still, as the spread of COVID-19 appears to subside, there is little indication that the growth trend won’t continue, which means the pandemic slowdown only offered a short reprieve. A Puget Sound Regional Council study found that regional demand for air travel will double by 2050, and the airport is running out of room.
Sea-Tac occupies the smallest geographic area of any major airport in the country. Surrounded by urban development, it cannot spread farther. The airport’s next big project — the expansion of C Concourse — is expected to start in 2023 and will add vertical growth with four new floors added to the existing building. But the region will still need a new major airport.
In 2019, the Legislature created a commission to recommend an appropriate location and called for a 2040 deadline to have a new airport in place. If previous delays are any indication — Sea-Tac’s third runway, for example, began construction in 1992 before opening in 2008 — this is an ambitious timeline.
The commission’s findings have further outlined the difficult task. A February report by the state Department of Transportation found that meeting projected demand for air transportation will require existing airports to expand as well as a new facility. It also noted that adverse environmental and health impacts from aviation may be more harmful than originally understood and must be taken into consideration.
So far, six potential locations have been identified — including sites in Arlington, Bremerton, Toledo, Everett, Shelton and Gig Harbor — but few if any could accommodate a large commercial airport and its likely impact to the community. Developments in sustainable aviation will help alleviate concerns, but there are no guarantees.
The challenge is daunting, and we are running out of runway. It will take coordinated action by local, state and federal governments to find a suitable site, as well as invest in the needed infrastructure and mitigation efforts, that can make a 21st century Washington airport a reality.
Update: An earlier version of this editorial stated the new terminal will open in April. The port says the opening is now slated for May.