Sea-Tac Airport sees huge increase in traffic during first quarter

When the passenger numbers for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were compiled for this year’s first quarter this week, the result surprised even the airport officials who had seen the airport growth last year outdistance every other major U.S. airport.

Those figures show Sea-Tac‘s overall passenger traffic grew by some 13 percent in 2015’s first three months, a rate three times what airport officials had predicted. International traffic increased by 16.2 percent while domestic passenger traffic jumped by 12.7 percent, according to new figures from the Port of Seattle, Sea-Tac’s owner.

Through the end of March, 8,722,673 passengers had used the airport. That’s 1,010,057 more passengers than used the airport in the first quarter of 2014.

In March, the growth rate accelerated over January and February. Passenger traffic increased by 14.28 percent in March this year. Domestic March traffic increased by 13.95 percent and international traffic by 17.16 percent

Air freight, led by international shipments, increased by 1.5 percent.

“Our growth was three times more than we forecast, strong evidence of the continued growth of our region and the need for responsible, efficient facility improvements to handle the needs of business and leisure travelers,” said Seattle Port Commission Co-President Courtney Gregoire.

Airport spokesman Perry Cooper said the growth can be credited in part to efforts by the airport’s two largest customers, Alaska Air Lines and Delta Air Lines, to bolster their flight schedules through Sea-Tac.

Delta is building a hub at Sea-Tac to support a group of new Delta international flights departing the airport. Delta now flies from Sea-Tac nonstop to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo’s two airports, Haneda and Narita. In Europe, Delta flights connect Sea-Tac with London, Amsterdam and Paris. Delta is increasing the number of domestic flights serving Sea-Tac to 125 daily by the end of the year.

Alaska, the airport’s largest carrier by market share, has responded by increasing its repertoire of routes from the airport to include many destinations to which it never flew before, including Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Tampa, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque and New Orleans.

Meanwhile, other carriers, both domestic and international, also have increased their Sea-Tac flights. Emirates Airlines, for instance, announced this month it will offer a second daily flight from Sea-Tac to its hub in Dubai. China’s Hainan Airlines has said it will begin flying from Sea-Tac to Shanghai as well as to Beijing.

Instead of dividing the existing pool of air transport customers into more flights, the additional flights have attracted more customers to the airport, said Cooper.

Those additional customers are an indication of the general revival of the economy in the Northwest and in the Puget Sound area, where major home-grown companies such as Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft, Costco, Nordstrom, Expedia and Boeing are enjoying relatively healthy finances. The area also has attracted new outposts from tech companies such as Google and Facebook, which employ hundreds of highly paid workers.

For Sea-Tac the unexpected growth is putting a sudden strain on the airport’s facilities. The airport last year handled some 37.5 million passengers, ranking it 13th busiest in the country. If the rest of the year’s business remains as robust as the first three months, Sea-Tac could see its ranking among the nation’s airports jump several notches.

The Port of Seattle is planning several multimillion-dollar upgrades at Sea-Tac to handle more traffic. The port, for instance, is planning to remodel and expand the airport’s North Satellite Terminal to update the facility and to add eight more gates for Alaska. On the airport’s south end, planning is well along on a new International Arrivals Facility to be built near the A Concourse. That will increase the number of gates usable for international flights from 11 to 18.

The new arrival facilities are years from opening. The International Arrivals Facility is set to open in the fourth quarter of 2019. The complete rehabilitated North Satellite is schedule to debut in 2020.

The airport’s customs and immigration facilities are now overstrained by the midday arrival of multiple planes from both Europe and Asia. Two flights have been rescheduled to remove them from the noon time traffic jam, and the port has prepared contingency plans to allow international flights to be off-loaded away from the gates. Buses would transport passengers from those planes to the arrival facilities. Thus far, airlines have not used that capability, opting instead to wait on the ground until a regular gate opens up.

The airport also is completely rebuilding its center runway this summer and is updating its baggage handling system over 10 years. Even with these improvements, the airport will need further facilities to handle growth like it saw in the first quarter. The airport is drafting a new master plan this year that includes a possible new North Terminal near the present Doug Fox parking lot and a second South Satellite Terminal or an addition to the A Concourse.

Those improvements will take years to plan and build.

“Our challenge will be to cope with the increased traffic until then,” said Cooper.