Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part report.
Mid-morning at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: All throughout the entrance hall, passengers are figuring out how to check in and drop off their bags. Pilots and flight crew are moving with purpose toward security checkpoints, and the public address system repeats its message not to leave any of your belongings unattended, thank you very much.
Lance Lyttle has stopped in the middle of all of this, bent over, and picked up a wrapper from the floor.
“Look at that chair,” he says, pointing to a seat where someone has left a coffee cup and some wrappers. “The cleaning people might have gone through just five minutes ago, but somebody leaves that, and it’s very challenging.”
He takes the trash to a nearby bin.
Officially, Lyttle is the managing director of aviation for the Port of Seattle, which runs Sea-Tac Airport. He’s the airport director – responsible for 800 employees and a $546 million budget. (More than 18,000 people work at the airport, but most are employees of contractors, airlines or businesses that lease space in the terminal.)
With so many people coming and going at Sea-Tac Airport – some 46.9 million passengers in 2017 alone – keeping the facility clean is one of countless logistical challenges the airport staff face each day. KNKX travel expert Matthew Brumley recently spoke to Lyttle about those challenges.
Like so many places in Western Washington, Sea-Tac Airport is feeling the impact of rapid growth throughout the region. Passenger levels in 2017 were up 2.6 percent from 2016, and it’s among the top 10 busiest U.S. airports. The busiest in the world, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, saw more than 104 million passengers in 2016.
“Our unconstrained forecast predicts that we’ll be at 66 million passengers by 2034,” Lyttle said. That’s assuming the budget, the region and the passengers keep growing. “But we have constraints. We have airfield constraints, we have airspace constraints, and we have financial constraints as well.”
At the moment, a big challenge is having available gates. Lyttle says airports operate in peaks and valleys. During peak hours, all the gates are in use. Two or three hours later, many gates are empty.
“It’s like church on Easter Sunday,” he said. “Everybody’s there. We have Easter Sunday every day.”
Part of the congestion is because international arrivals can only use the south satellite concourse. But a new International Arrivals Facility under construction now aims to fix that. It’s 450,000 square feet attached to the airport’s Concourse A, and will allow some of the A gates to be used for international flights.
There will also be a sky bridge for passengers to move between Concourse A and the south satellite – tall enough for large jets to pass beneath, and will give passengers a view toward Mount Rainier as they arrive. It’s expected to be complete in late 2019.
There are also renovations happening at the north satellite, which could be done by spring of 2021.
A Changing Space
Brumley has flown in and out of Sea-Tac Airport more times than he can count, both for his work as a travel guide, and also long before. He grew up here and still remembers his first international flight in the 1980s.
“I just remember these low ceilings and dimly lit corridors,” he said. “It wasn’t the most uplifting of places to arrive or depart from.”
That’s changed with the addition of windows and the enormous center-terminal food court with a wall of glass that looks out onto the airfield.
“They’re letting in a lot of natural light,” he said.
But he also says big international airports, like in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and parts of Asia, still have an edge. In a lot of cases that’s because they receive more national government support than American airports. Government grants make up a small amount of funding at Sea-Tac.
“So we can’t afford to build the Taj Mahals, and have the butterfly sanctuary and all of that,” Lyttle said. “These airports have these things, but they were planned and designed that way.”
Next week, we’ll hear how Sea-Tac attracts airlines to fly here. "Going Places" is 88.5's weekly exploration of travel. Our travel expert, Matthew Brumley, is co-founder of Earthbound Expeditions on Bainbridge Island, which provides small group travel to clients including KNKX. Never miss an episode again. Subscribe to Going Places with iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.