A glowing celebration Thursday of the impending opening of a new international arrivals facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport showcased the building’s magnificent architecture that will provide incoming travelers with a proper welcome to the Pacific Northwest.
The spacious new facility, which cost nearly $1 billion, is expected to open to travelers in about a month. Ryan Calkins, chairman of the Port of Seattle Commission, said the building “with its soaring windows and breathtaking grandeur finally looks like the kind of place remarkable enough to be our region’s porch to the world.”
Yet, with a war raging in Europe that worries people around the world, the inauguration ceremony developed a surprisingly sharp political focus.
Rather than talk about air travelers arriving here in the abstract, state and airport officials recalled the area’s history of hosting refugees and promised that this stately building would welcome families. fleeing the devastating war in Ukraine.
Passengers arriving at Sea-Tac’s southern satellite gates will walk through a 780-foot-long skybridge with a moving walkway – 85 feet above a taxiway with jets passing below and with an unobstructed view of the Mount Rainier on one side and the Olympics on the other – then step through an archway inscribed “Welcome to the United States” before dropping onto the mezzanine floor of a large lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“They’re going to start a new life when they cross that airlift,” Governor Jay Inslee said in a speech to guests who included foreign consuls, airline officials and local government officials. He mentioned the first refugee flows from Vietnam in the 1970s, more recently from Afghanistan, “and now from Ukraine.”
“Our state will become a stronger and more vibrant state through welcoming these refugees, and I am proud to say that we will welcome them,” Inslee said.
In his speech, Calkins said that “as we celebrate today a facility that bridges cultures and borders…we do so at a time when an autocratic ruler has invaded a sovereign nation”, an act which, according to he united democracies around the world. against the Russian invasion.
Before the speeches began, George Montero, an Alaskan native and member of the Tlingit tribe, called for a minute’s silence for the Ukrainian people, then opened the proceedings by playing a flute he had carved and which filled the room with ethereal music. He said we must welcome strangers to earth and embrace them. Montero, a retired carpenter, helped build part of the main Sea-Tac terminal.
Operation strength test
The new, nearly complete International Arrivals facility will transform the experience of arriving here from overseas.
For years it was a strangely convoluted and dismal experience.
International travelers arrived at the South Satellite (Concours S), cleared customs, then descended an escalator to a windowless basement to wait for bags on a carousel. After collecting their bags, the passports were again checked and the bags then had to be placed on a conveyor belt. Passengers then took a train to the main terminal and waited there for their luggage to appear on another baggage carousel.
The new system eliminates this double expectation. Passengers will cross the walkway to the grand concourse and collect their baggage from one of seven carousels before queuing for inspection at several customs and border protection checkpoints where facial recognition is installed to speed throughput.
Once there, travelers are free.
Some international passengers will arrive at the new main terminal gates (Concours A) and proceed directly to the Grand Concourse, bypassing the air bridge. There will be 20 international gates instead of the current 12.
The facility is designed to more than double its capacity to a maximum of 2,600 passengers per hour.
To prepare it, airport officials are testing its operation. Soon 175 members of the public will walk by and act like they’ve just arrived on a Boeing 777 to see how it works.
The original plan was to put 1,500 to 2,000 people through a stress test, but COVID restrictions reduced the number.
Although the building looks fantastic, a point of stress could be the toilets.
There is a restroom at the end of the overhead walkway and another downstairs in the large hall, which also has smaller family restrooms. The two main toilets are spacious. However, the men’s room in each has only six or seven cabins, the women’s room twice as many.
Imagining two fully loaded 777s arriving around the same time, each with 350 passengers on board having spent perhaps ten hours in the air, even Seattle Port Commissioner Fred Felleman admitted that didn’t seem like enough. of cabins.
Asked about it, Chad Aldridge, the facilities manager for operational readiness, said that since there were no outlets until passengers cleared customs, people wouldn’t linger. in the toilets. “I mean people come in and out pretty quickly,” he said.
Janet Sheerer, the facility’s project manager, said the number of toilets meets the standard set by the port and the International Air Transport Association, the airlines’ trade group.
Over budget and behind schedule
The new facility was a massive, multi-year project.
Monty Anderson, executive secretary of the Seattle, King County Building and Construction Trades Council – representing all unionized construction workers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, heating and air conditioning installers and several other trades who worked on the project – said 3 million man hours went into the building.
“Everything you see here, from the roof to the glazing; to everything you can’t see, electrical, fire suppression, heating and insulation, HVAC, fire dampers, everything done here was done with hands,” said said Anderson. “And of those 3 million hours, every worker who worked in that role had health care, retired, and got job training.”
He praised the tenacity and determination of workers who got up every day and came to work to finish the job during a pandemic.
What was just a muddy puddle of a construction site a few years ago, he said, is now something workers can point to and say, “I built this.
Anderson added that when he entered the construction business in the late 1980s, it was a family affair, with sons following fathers into the trades. Since then, he said, the company has intentionally sought to bring diversity both in terms of gender and race. He said 30% of those working on the installation were people of color.
As work progressed, cost was a moving target.
When the facility was first planned by the port in 2014, the proposed budget was $344 million and the schedule called for completion in 2018. The final budget is $968 million and the project is ending four years behind schedule.
However, the project is not funded by taxpayers’ money. It comes from airport revenue from airfare and other airline service charges, retail tenants at the airport, parking fees, taxi fares, shuttles, car rental facilities and other charges.
Port Commissioner Calkins said the budget bloat came down to three factors.
First, during the project, the Port and its partners repeatedly decided to increase both the capacity of the facility and the services it would provide.
Second, he said, “virtually every year we’ve seen double-digit increases in material and labor costs.”
Third, over the past two years, the COVID pandemic has caused further disruption and additional costs.
Now that the project is complete, along with the recently opened expansion of the North Satellite Concourse, other improvement projects are underway, he said.
He listed a redesign of the northern section of the ticketing concourse where the Alaska ticket booths are located; south satellite upgrades; and a significant expansion of airport catering and retail between Concourses C and D.
“We are entering a very healthy period for the Port financially and therefore can commit to strong growth,” Calkins said.
The installation of international arrivals is a major step in the expansion and modernization of the airport.
Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines will be the main beneficiaries.
Eric Philips, senior vice president of Delta, said that by August the airline will offer nearly 45 weekly nonstop flights to Amsterdam, Incheon, London, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo.
Alaska will benefit from its membership in the Oneworld alliance, which allows its Miles members to book flights with major international airline partners, including British Airways, Japan Airlines and American Airlines, said Nat Pieper, senior vice president of Alaska.
“We have a global network that we can sell and market like ours,” Pieper said in an interview. “If those connections are seamless, it just helps Alaska on every level.”
Thursday, the supporting roles were joyful.
The theme of welcoming diverse peoples to the area began when a group of Japanese drummers led guests from the main terminal into the newly completed Great Hall.
With Montero performing before the speeches, the ceremony was closed by Seattle Opera singer Ginger Costa-Jackson, whose powerful voice filled the giant space as she sang a tune from “Barber of Seville.” .
She followed that with “Over the Rainbow,” which in “The Wizard of Oz” led to another Emerald City.