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Opening soon in Seattle: A bigger, better and much prettier International Arrivals Facility

March 03, 2022
5 min read
Opening soon in Seattle: A bigger, better and much prettier International Arrivals Facility
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Airports like to boast that they serve as the front doors to their cities and as the welcome portals for international travelers arriving in the United States.

But at many airports, the welcome experience for international travelers is not all that impressive. Arriving passengers must often take long walks down windowless corridors, gather their luggage in crowded baggage halls, and wait on frustratingly long lines to clear customs and immigration.

For years, the international arrivals experience at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) has been like that.

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Welcome signs are seen during a preview of Seattle's new International Arrivals Facility. (Photo courtesy of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport)

On peak summer days international passengers are commonly held on planes because there aren’t enough gates at the current 1970s-era facility to deplane all international passengers.

Then, “when they are let off the plane, we often have to keep passengers in the corridors because we don’t have enough space inside the facility to process everyone,” Lance Lyttle, SEA’s managing director told TPG. Once inside SEA’s current arrivals facility, passengers must then go through immigration, reclaim their luggage in a crowded baggage area with only four carousels, then line up again to go through customs, recheck bags for connecting flights, and board a train to the main terminal.

Soon that experience will be streamlined and far more pleasant.

SEA is putting the finishing touches on a new, much bigger, light and art-filled international arrivals facility – the IAF – and giving the media and the public a first look at the space in a series of live streaming video events today, March 3.

A preview of Seattle's new International Arrivals Facility. (Photo courtesy of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport)

In the new sustainable, energy efficient IAF “you get your bags first, then go through combined immigrations and customs process and that’s it. You are either here in Seattle, or you connect to a flight,” says Lyttle. “It’s a big deal for the passengers coming to the city, to the region, and to the United States. Especially those coming for the first time.”

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Under construction since 2017, the IAF was supposed to open at the end of 2021. The pandemic delayed the opening and increased the project budget by $18 million, to $986 million. But all the planned conveniences, high-efficiency baggage services, other improved technologies, and “wow” factors are still there.

Thanks to the addition of eight “swing’” gates that can serve both domestic and international flights on Concourse A, and the creation of an secure travel corridor on this concourse, SEA now has 20 gates that can accommodate arriving international flights.

The layout of Seattle's new International Arrivals Facility. (Photo courtesy of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport)

Arriving passengers at SEA’s South Satellite gates will now make their way to Grand Hall just east of Concourse A for baggage and customs processing via an 85-foot-high aerial walkway that is 780 feet long.

The steel and glass walkway is the longest aerial walkway over an active taxiway. And, weather-permitting, passengers that use that walkway “will have a specular view of Mount Rainier, the surrounding mountain ranges, and the city skyline,” said Lyttle. “It will be a tremendously different customer experience” and a great first impression, or welcome home, for passengers coming to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.”

A view of preview of Seattle's new International Arrivals Facility with Mount Rainier looming in the background. (Photo courtesy of Port of Seattle)

All arriving passengers will make their way to the 450,000-square-foot grand hall. Instead of four baggage carousels, there are seven much larger ones.

Thanks to a variety of enhanced technologies, the much larger facility will be able to handle 2,600 passengers per hour, which is more than double the amount of passengers the current facility can handle. And the minimum passenger connection time – a key service measurement for airports – will be shaved to the target 75 minutes from 90.

Carousel areas are seen in a preview of Seattle's new International Arrivals Facility. (Photo courtesy of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport)

SEA airport is well known for having art throughout the facility, and the IAF included the opportunity to add more.

The five 50-foot, brightly painted, site specific sculptures suspended over five of the baggage carousels are part of Chalchiutlicue, by Marela Zacarías. The three spinning suspended metallic mobiles in the Grand Hall are part of Ned Kahn’s work titled Magnetic Anomaly.

Timing is right for the IAF opening

The Port of Seattle, which operates SEA airport, is conducting final readiness testing in the IAF and will begin welcoming early morning international flights and arriving passengers in the Grand Hall later this month.

And even though the facility is opening later than originally planned, the timing now seems right.

While international traffic was down more than 80% from 2019 to the end of 2020, SEA says it has recovered more than half of its pre-pandemic international destinations. SEA currently has 11 airlines serving 14 international destinations, including Qatar Airways to Doha (DOH), which was the first new international carrier to begin SEA service since the start of the pandemic. In the next few months, both Turkish Airlines and Finnair are scheduled to begin new service to SEA too.

Exterior of the Grand Hall Building, part of the new International Arrivals Facility at Seattle. (Courtesy of Port of Seattle)
Featured image by Port of Seattle
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.