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Sea-Tac Airport hopes new facility gives better first impression on arrival

When you arrive on an international flight at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, you end up at the S-gates and are shepherded into customs – a windowless area in this nearly 50-year-old building, under low ceilings and fluorescent lights.

A $968 million renovation will add a new International Arrivals Facility to the airport, which sees 51.8 million passengers a year.

And airport officials hope the new facility will offer a completely opposite experience than what travelers encounter today.


Passengers arriving from abroad will still land at the S-gates in the South Satellite, but will then be sent up a long escalator to a massive pedestrian bridge that takes them over a taxiway to the new International Arrivals Facility, or IAF.

And if the Pacific Northwest’s notoriously fickle weather is cooperating, arriving passengers will get a long look at Mount Rainier.

The bridge is 85 feet in the air, tall enough for a Boeing 747 to pass beneath. And it’s long enough that if tipped on its end, the bridge would be taller than the Space Needle. The airport says this is the longest structure over an active aircraft taxiway in the world.

The center section of the bridge was built at the other end of the airfield and then rolled very slowly to the construction site, in the middle of a rainy night in late January.

“It rained a lot,” said Sara Mitchell, resident engineer for the Port of Seattle. “We were all soaked.”

She walked with the bridge as it made its way over, then watched all night, as cranes hoisted it into place above the taxiway. The airport says it weighs as much as 14 blue whales.

“There were a lot of nerves, but I think as soon as our strand jacks lifted the bridge, even a little bit, got that full weight on it, I think we all felt really good,” Mitchell said.

The bridge is designed up to seismic code, and “tuned mass dampers” will absorb energy as the bridge is buffeted by wind. Passengers, Mitchell said, won’t feel any movement.


Inside, passengers will pick up bags and clear Customs in rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows. That’s a far cry from the current situation. Mount Rainier will still be visible from parts of this area as well, and Link light rail trains will be seen shuttling back and forth outside.

There will be more stations at Customs, a larger secondary screening area, seven baggage claims instead of four, and more security lanes for TSA. The airport says those improvements will bring faster connection times and more than double the passenger capacity, allowing 2,600 people per hour to make it through.

And then they’ll head down a ramp.


A long ramp takes passengers out of the International Arrivals Facility and toward the rest of the airport. Windows offer views of a courtyard containing plants and trees.

“It’s supposed to give that vision of going up from the sky, coming down into the trees in the Northwest,” said Tyler Symbol, construction manager for the Port of Seattle. “This open area here has a lot of plantings. It’s called our lightwell.”

The bottom line is to give passengers a happier way to arrive, especially after long international flights. For many, Sea-Tac Airport offers a first impression of the region. Symbol, Mitchell, and other airport officials say they want it to be good.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.