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Spotlight on Seattle-Tacoma International Airport


Managing director for aviation, Lance Lyttle, talks to Joe Bates about the multi-billion dollar development of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the gateway’s ambition to be the greenest airport in North America.  

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) will open its new International Arrivals Facility (IAF), one of the key projects of its ongoing $3.9 billion Capital Improvement Plan, in early 2022. 

Described as the most complex capital development project in the 71 year history of the airport, the new facility is expected to significantly enhance the arrivals experience for the rising number of international passengers arriving at the Washington State gateway.

The complexity of the project is because it has involved the construction of a 450,000-square-foot Grand Hall for baggage claim and customs processing; a 780ft long aerial walkway 85ft above the taxiway connecting the IAF directly to the South Satellite; and the addition of a new international corridor connecting arriving international passengers on Concourse A.

“The International Arrivals Facility is going to significantly change things for international passengers,” enthuses the Port of Seattle’s managing director for aviation, Lance Lyttle.

“The Arrivals facility it is replacing was built back in the 1970s, and it actually looks and feels like it was built then as not much has been done to it over the years. Credit to the people who designed and built it as it still works and has done a fantastic job, but it is operationally limiting and not what you should expect from the eighth busiest airports in the United States.

“The look and the feel of the new building and the space that it offers will be like night and day. It is a really beautiful facility. It’s not a Taj Mahal, but it’s really elegant and will get us to the levels of service we want to provide at the airport.”

Further explaining the difference the new IAF will make to SEA, Lyttle notes that it will be five times the size of the existing facility and capable of processing up to 2,600 passengers per hour as opposed to 1,200 today. The improved capacity is expected to play a significant role in helping SEA achieve its goal of establishing a minimum connecting time of 75 minutes for passengers transferring between international and domestic flights.

New North Satellite 

The much anticipated addition of the International Arrivals Facility will be the second major new piece of infrastructure unveiled at SEA in the last year following the summer 2021 opening of an expanded North Satellite building.

Lyttle says the $700 million revamp of the North Satellite has not ony made the facility bigger and better than before, but greener and more customer friendly.

In short, the new-look complex – opened by the Port of Seattle and home carrier Alaska Airlines in July 2021 – has allowed for the addition of eight more gates, more dining and retail options and more amenities than ever before for both passengers and staff.

Sustainability, most notably in the shape of energy efficiency and water conservation, was also high on the agenda of the airport when revamping the North Satellite building, which it now believes is equipped to serve SEA until at least 2070.

The use of LED lighting throughout the facility, for example, is expected to save nearly 1.7 million kilowatts of energy per annum, which Lyttle reveals is the equivalent of providing power to 170 homes.

SEA is also thought to be the first airport in North America to use renewable natural gas for heating the North Satellite and all other buildings on the airport site, an innovation Lyttle proudly notes means that they aren’t causing any carbon emissions.

While two underground 215,000-gallon tanks are used to collect rainwater from the roof of the North Satellite so that it can be reused to flush the facility’s toilets, saving around 2.8 million gallons of potable water yearly.

Lyttle adds that 76% or 20,000 tons of construction waste for the project was recycled and thereby diverted from landfills, and nearly $21 million worth of recycled materials were utilised.

More work to be done

And there is so much more to come in terms of new infrastructure, as SEA is planning to expand Concourse C and is currently midway through a major renovation of the Central Terminal and multi-phase Baggage Optimization programme as part of the current $3.9 billion capital development programme.

Set to be carried out in three phases, with the first already completed, the Baggage Optimization programme will integrate six entirely separate BHS across SEA into one system, effectively meaning that passengers can check-in and drop baggage at any ticket counter.

In early 2021, SEA hired The Miller Hull Partnership and Woods Bagot as joint project design leaders for the 110,000 square foot expansion on Concourse C, with the project slated for completion in 2027.

Located between Concourses C and D, the $340 million expansion will add four additional floors, each covering 27,000 square feet, that will bring more natural daylight into the building as well as allowing for the introduction of multi-level dining and retail offerings that will feature a mix of popular local brands and more national and internationally known options.

Lyttle says that Concourse C’s planned retail market will draw inspiration from Seattle’s beloved Pike Place Market and that live music performances will celebrate the city’s musical culture, ensuring that visitors are left in no doubt that they are in Seattle and Washington State.

“Diversity, performance, sense of place and sustainability are the driving design principles behind the Concourse C expansion project,” comments Lyttle, noting that the beauty of the Pacific Northwest will also be reflected in the design references to nature and some of the materials used in its construction.

And SEA’s expansion programme is not going to stop there as its Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) has identified between $6 billion and $8 billion worth of projects that the gateway is likely to need to undertake over the next five, ten to 20 years to ensure that it is able to sustainably grow and meet rising demand.

They include widening roadways, a new 19-gate terminal, an automated people mover (APM) system to connect it to the main passenger terminal and rental car facility, airfield taxiway enhacements and new cargo facilities. 

If or when they happen will, of course, depend on numerous factors ranging from traffic demand and finding the funds to finance them to gaining environmental approval to proceed with the projects.

But with SEA remaining on target to handle a predicted 56 million passengers per annum by 2027, Lyttle is in no doubt that the airport will need to continue to enhance its facilities over the coming decades to meet demand and secure its long-term future.

Pulling power of the Puget Sound region 

In many ways, SEA is breaking from the norm by choosing to continue with its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and openly talking about huge, longer-term projects during arguably the worst crisis the aviation industry has ever faced.

Lyttle, however, believes that the choice of continuing with the current CIP – with the exception of delays to a few of the smaller projects – and planning further into the future was simple, as he feels that SEA will need the extra capacity sooner rather than later.

And he is quick to point out that SEA’s airlines were fully behind the IAF and North Satellite projects as they also believe in the airport’s growth path.

“We estimate that we will end 2021 with passenger numbers about 30% down on 2019, and such is our recovery that we only expect to be about 5% down on pre-COVID levels in 2022 and then get back to where we were before in 2023/2024,” states Lyttle.

“Nothing is certain, of course, and new COVID variants could put a kink in things, but if our domestic numbers continue to rise and international traffic returns, there is no reason to doubt the growth trajectory.” 

SEA was one of the fastest growing airports in the US over the five years prior to the COVID pandemic, and a strong traffic recovery in the second half of 2021 indicates that it is on track to bounce back to 2019’s trafffic levels a lot faster than most big US gateways.

Fleshing that out a little, SEA handled a record 51.8 million passengers in 2019, and although that fell to 20.1 million in 2020 due to the global pandemic, it expects to welcome 38.3 million in 2021 and eventually pass 2019’s traffic levels by 2024 based on a near 30% upturn in passenger in 2022 followed by annual increases of between 2% and 4%.

“The airport’s success in terms of traffic growth is very much down to its location in the Puget Sound region, which was booming before the pandemic and continues to boom today,” explains Lyttle, noting that Boeing’s main manufacturing plant is in nearby Everett and that firms like Microsoft and Amazon are two of a host of Fortune 500 companies to have their global headquarters in Washington State.

“Businesses like these continue to grow and offer high paid jobs that attract people to the region from elsewhere in the US and across the world,” he adds. “This has led to the development
of a strong economy in the Puget Sound region with a population with a significantly higher disposal income than the national average, and all of this combined has driven the demand to travel.”

Another contributing factor to SEA’s pre-COVID traffic growth, says Lyttle, was Delta’s 2014 decision to make the airport its West Coast hub, initially in partnership with home based Alaska Airlines, before deciding that the market was strong enough to compete against it on domestic routes.

The decision means that the airport has two strong airlines in Alaska and Delta that between them serve 87 destinations in the US from SEA and, prior to COVID, 14 international routes.

Airlines and traffic growth

As previously mentioned, SEA has been one of the fastest growing airports in the US for while, setting new traffic records for eight successive years prior to the pandemic.

The upturn resulted in an impressive 43% rise in passengers in the five years before COVID and meant that 14 million more passengers passed through SEA in 2019 than six years earlier, during which time its international route network increased by 50%, a substantial amount of which was due to new services launched by Delta.

According to Lyttle, the addition of routes to China (Shanghai and Beijing) and South Korea (Incheon) were among “the most significant” of the new international routes launched by Delta as they opened up new long-haul markets for the region. 

Today, around 18 of the 23 airlines that operated international services to a total of 42 destinations from SEA pre-COVID have returned, including Air France (Paris), Singapore Airlines (Singapore) and All Nippon (Tokyo) in Q4 2021. Aer Lingus (Dublin) and Virgin Atlantic (London) are expected to join them in early 2022.

Two of the more recent new arrivals have included Qatar Airways, which launched services to Doha from SEA in early 2021 and WestJet, which inaugurated a service to Calgary on November 4. 

Despite the new routes, international services currently only account for around 10% of the overall traffic at SEA, and although Lyttle would like to see this figure grow in the future, he is more than aware that the current dominance of domestic O&D services is a major reason why the airport didn’t suffer the massive traffic declines of other airports more dependent on international traffic.

Interestingly, SEA’s domestic transfer traffic increased during the pandemic as a number of airlines actively increased services to the airport to meet demand from leisure travellers and avoid losing market share in the highly competitive region.

Unsurprisingly, Alaska (49%) and Delta (24%) are the biggest airlines at SEA in terms of market share followed by United (5.7%), American (5%) and Southwest (5.6%) with the most popular routes for passenger traffic being to Vancouver, Phoenix, Anchorage, Las Vegas and Denver.

What, perhaps, is a surprise is the fact that the low-cost carriers (LCCs) – represented by JetBlue, Frontier, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and Volaris at SEA pre-COVID – have struggled to make a major impact at the airport, between accounting for just 8.8% of the annual traffic. 

Lyttle feels that this is down to their relatively late entrance to the market, and the dominance of Alaska Airlines, which he says has a fiercely loyal customer base.

Sustainability goals

As you can probably gather from the raft of sustainability measures incorporated into its ongoing capital improvement programme, the sustainable development of SEA is hugely important to the Port of Seattle and shapes almost everything it does.

Indeed, striving to be the greenest and most energy efficient port in the US is a stated goal of SEA, which has announced that the planned expansion of Concourse C will be the first project to be implemented under the Port of Seattle’s new Sustainable Project Framework. 

Targetting LEED Silver certification, the framework supports the early integration of sustainability in capital projects with a view to meeting the Century Agenda goals.

Talking about SEA’s sustainability strategy, Lyttle says: “Our objective is to become the greenest airport in the US, and this pretty much means that every large and medium sized project at the airport goes through a sustainability project framework from the planning stage onwards, despite the extra costs involved.

“We look at each project in terms of how can we reduce carbon emissions, save energy and embrace the use renewable energy as we don’t believe in just purchasing carbon offsets to reach our goals. In this regards, we view the signing of a 10-year contract with an energy company to provide us with renewable natural gas as being a major accomplishment.

“I cannot overstate how important the sustainable development of the airport is to the Port of Seattle. It is a huge, huge thing for us and we believe the sustainability elements built in to the North Satellite provide a perfect example of our philosophy.”

Digital and touchless technology

The quest for seamless travel and ensuring the wellbeing of both passengers and staff, of course, remain top priorities for the airport, with SEA, like many other gateways, increasingly turning to digital solutions and touchless technology for answers.

Lyttle is particularly proud of the success of the SEA Spot Saver initiative, which allows passengers to digitally reserve a time to go through the TSA’s security checkpoints. The solution reduces wait times and during the pandemic helped maintain social distancing at one of the most tightly constrained and consistently crowded areas of the airport.

“We were the first airport in the US, and possibly the world, to give passengers the chance to actually reserve a place in the security line before coming to the airport or upon arrival at the airport,” he enthuses.

“All those that do are given a time slot in a separate security line, which is verified by staff with iPads, meaning that it is no longer necessary to join long queues at the security checkpoint. And the best thing about it is that it is free for all all passengers as you don’t need to be in a trusted traveller programme to use it.”

Touchless check-in at SEA is also now possible courtesy of the adoption of a solution that uses infrared technology to detect finger movements as they hover above kiosk screens, making it possible to complete the process without touching any buttons.

The system is in use at the common-use check-in kiosks available for jetBlue, Spirit Airlines, Korean Air, Volaris, Air Canada, and Frontier. 

Lyttle admits that the pandemic has also sped up the planned introduction of biometric enabled passenger processing technologies at SEA as well as the opening of smart restrooms and the introduction of Terahertz imaging cameras for the secondary screening of staff to reduce the need for physical searches.

Other digital solutions to have been introduced at the airport include food delivery services; QR codes replacing menus in the airport’s restaurants; and pre-paid parking to avoid the need to use payment kiosks.

In addition, the airport’s downloadable flySEA App allows users to check everything from security wait times, the status of flights and where to get a cup of coffee to step-by-step directions how to navigate their way the airport using an interactive map.

Economic impact of SEA

Despite losing $350 million in 2020 and expected losses of over $100 million in 2021 due to the downturn in traffic, the Port of Seattle and SEA remains one of the Pacific Northwest’s leading economic engines. 

Indeed, pre-COVID, SEA was directly responsible for 87,300 jobs; $7.1 billion in total personal income; $22.5 billion in economic activity; and $415 million in state taxes reflecting direct and secondary activities.

Lyttle proudly tells me that the Port of Seattle didn’t furlough or make any staff redundant during the pandemic, although he openly admits that a near $400 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) grant and others from the US government certainly helped make this possible.

In 2019, at the SMART Airports Conference & Exhibition in El Paso, Lyttle stated that one of aims of the Port of Seattle was to create 100,000 new jobs over the next 25 years. 

Does he think that the figure is still realistic as it is now generally accepted that it is going to take several years for the global travel and tourism industry to recover from COVID and business travel may never be the same again?

“It’s an aspirational goal, but I think that it is still very much achievable as it is for the entire Port of Seattle, so that includes the airport, seaport and all maritime operations. We will grow, and growth brings jobs,” Lyttle replies.

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