The midday crowds of passengers weary from the 10-hour or longer flights surging through the corridors at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s international arrivals facility are living evidence of the need for expanded and upgraded customs facilities at the nation’s 13th busiest airport.
Those crowds are rapidly increasing in size as Delta Air Lines and other carriers make Sea-Tac a major gateway to the U.S. for foreign travelers and a hub for international flights to Europe and Asia.
Delta alone has added a handful of new foreign destinations in the past two years including Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and London. And foreign airlines too are adding new overseas flights. Emirates Airways, for instance, recently announced a second daily nonstop flight to Dubai. China’s Hainan Airlines has announced plans to fly from Sea-Tac to Shanghai and to Beijing.
In the first four months of this year, international passengers passing through Sea-Tac increased by more than 16 percent, or about 178,000 additional travelers.
All of these passengers are funneled through an international arrivals facility that hasn’t been expanded or updated since the South Satellite Terminal was built in the early 1970s.
The increase in travelers is convincing evidence to virtually all of the airport’s 20 airlines that action is needed to handle the growing crowds.
“We’re all well aware of the congestion,” Alaska Airlines vice president Joe Sprague said.
But those airlines have significantly different ideas how those problems should be solved and who should pay for those improvements.
Those differences have bubbled to the surface in a controversy that pits the airport’s busiest airline, Alaska, against its growing rival, Delta.
Just last month, a coalition of airlines lead by Alaska asked the Port of Seattle Commission to rethink its plan for handling it international traffic. Commissioners asked airport executives to spend the next 90 days taking a fresh look at the existing plan for the arrivals facility’s expansion. Commissioners agreed.
That plan now calls for creation of a new customs hall adjacent to the A Concourse on the airport’s south end. That new arrivals facility would be linked with the South Satellite with a covered walkway that will carry international passengers over the tarmac near the satellite terminal and the A Concourse to a customs facility with capacity to handle the growing crowds.
But the cost of that facility, now $608 million and growing, has some airlines concerned. That figure is about twice what the Port of Seattle originally projected.
Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper said the estimate has grown as planning and engineering examined ideas for the new facility and as construction prices in the Puget Sound area have increased.
The escalating cost is one item the commission’s fresh look at the facility will consider. Alaska’s Sprague said the port should carefully consider whether advancing technologies, such as automated customs clearance, can cut the need for space for passengers to queue up for customs clearance.
And some foreign airlines are concerned that the new facility will favor Delta because the port plans to add some Delta international arrival gates in the A Concourse, which will be a shorter walk to the customs area than their gates at the west end of the satellite terminal.
But beyond the design issues are the complicated questions about how the port will pay for the new facility. Money to pay for construction could come from several sources including the ubiquitous $4.50 per traveler Passenger Facility Charge, the Federal Inspection Service charge levied on international customers or the port’s own financial reserves from non-airline operations, such as parking and terminal retailers.
Alaska, which is the second largest user of international facilities at Sea-Tac after Delta, says it could be unfairly burdened by the costs of the new building because it handles more than 50 percent of the passenger traffic at the airport while it accounts for only 14 percent of the international traffic. Some of the funds the port plans to use will be proportional to an airline’s total market share, not just its international market share.
The airport’s Cooper said the port’s funding plan for the expanded facility must be careful not to price the airport out of line with its West Coast competitors. The port’s inspection service charge is now $7.40 per passenger, less than San Francisco’s $7.54 and Los Angeles’ $9.50 but more than the $6.38 charged by Vancouver, B.C., and the $5.63 charge in Portland.
Raising the inspection fee too high could drive international airline business, which the port has carefully nurtured for years, to other airports. Dipping too deeply into the Passenger Facility Charge reserves could diminish the availability of those funds for other airport projects. Alaska, for instance, is working with Sea-Tac to undertake a $500 million expansion and upgrade to the North Satellite Terminal which will be used exclusively by the SeaTac-based airline. That project will upgrade the terminal’s decor and facilities and add more gates to the terminal.
Also, Cooper noted the $600-million cost to upgrade the international facilities is part of the a $1.7 billion airport upgrading program that includes rebuilding the center runway, rebuilding the baggage system and the North Satellite remodeling and expansion.
While the $600 million cost of the International Arrivals Facility might be a big item in that budget, Cooper noted, the port has spent little if anything on the facility in more than 40 years.
“Every part of the airport has its turn to be upgraded,” he said. “Now is the time for the (international arrivals facility).”