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Sept. 29, 2023

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Celebrating a grand new facility at Sea-Tac airport, Washington officials pledge to welcome Ukrainian refugees

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The U.S.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection area is seen at the new International Arrivals Facility at Sea-Tac International Airport, Thursday, March 3, 2022, Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Seattle (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times via AP) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — A splashy celebration Thursday of the imminent opening of a new International Arrivals Facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport showcased the building’s magnificent architecture that will provide incoming travelers a fitting welcome to the Pacific Northwest.

The spacious new facility, which cost close to $1 billion, is expected to open to travelers in about a month. Ryan Calkins, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, said the building “with its soaring windows and its sweeping grandeur, finally feels like the kind of place remarkable enough to be our region’s front porch to the world.”

Yet with a war raging in Europe that has people all over the world on edge, the ceremonial ribbon-cutting developed an unexpectedly sharp political focus.

Rather than talk about air travelers arriving here in the abstract, state and airport officials recalled this region’s history of welcoming refugees and pledged that this majestic building will welcome families fleeing the devastating war in Ukraine.

Arriving passengers at Sea-Tac’s south satellite gates will cross a 780-foot-long aerial bridge with a moving walkway — 85 feet above a taxiway with passing jets crossing below and with a clear view of Mount Rainier on one side and the Olympics on the other — then pass through an archway inscribed with “Welcome to the United States” before flowing onto the mezzanine level of a great hall with floor-to-ceiling windows.

“They’re going to start a new life when they cross that skybridge,” said Gov. Jay Inslee in a speech to invited guests that included foreign consuls, airline representatives and local government officials. He mentioned earlier flows of refugees from Vietnam in the ‘70s, more recently from Afghanistan, “and now from Ukraine.”

“Our state will become a stronger, more vibrant state because of welcoming these refugees, and I’m proud to say we are going to welcome them,” Inslee said.

In his speech, Calkins said that “while we celebrate today, a facility that bridges cultures and borders … we do so at a moment in which an autocratic leader has invaded a sovereign nation,” an act that he said has united democracies around the world in opposition to Russia’s invasion.

Before the speeches began, George Montero, an Alaska Native and member of the Tlingit Tribe, asked for a moment of silence for the people in Ukraine then opened proceedings by playing a flute he’d carved that filled the hall with ethereal music. He said we need to welcome strangers to the land, and embrace them. Montero, a retired carpenter, helped build part of the main Sea-Tac terminal.

Stress-testing the operation

The new International Arrivals Facility, all but complete, will transform the experience of arriving here from abroad.

For years, that has been a bizarrely convoluted and dismal experience.

International travelers arrived at the south satellite (Concourse S), went through customs, then descended an escalator to a windowless basement to wait for bags on a carousel. After picking up their bags, passports were checked again and bags then had to be placed on a conveyor belt. The 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 wait. Passengers will flow over the walkway to the great hall and pick up their bags at one of seven carousels before they line up for inspection at multiple Customs and Border Protection stations where facial recognition is installed to speed throughput.

Once through there, travelers are free.

Some international passengers will arrive at new gates at the main terminal (Concourse A) and pass directly into the great hall, bypassing the aerial bridge. There will be 20 international gates instead of the current 12.

The facility is designed to more than double capacity to a maximum of 2,600 passengers per hour.

Getting it ready, airport officials are testing its operation. Soon they will have 175 members of the public come through and act as if they’ve just arrived on a Boeing 777 to see how it works out.

The original plan was to have 1,500 to 2,000 people flow through in a stress test, but COVID restrictions reduced the number.

While the building looks fantastic, one stress point could be the restrooms.

There is one restroom at the end of the aerial walkway and another down below in the great hall, which also has smaller family restrooms. The two main restrooms are spacious. However, the men’s room in each has just six or seven stalls, the women’s room twice that many.

Imagining a couple of fully loaded 777s arriving at around the same time, each with 350 passengers aboard having spent maybe ten hours in flight, even Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman admitted that didn’t seem like enough stalls.

Asked about this, Chad Aldridge, the facility manager for operational readiness, said that because there are no retail outlets until passengers pass through customs, people won’t linger in the restrooms. “I mean people get in and get out pretty quick,” he said.

Janet Sheerer, the facility project manager, said the number of restrooms meets the standard set by the Port and by the International Air Transport Association, the airline trade group.

Over budget and late

The new facility was a massive, multiyear project.

Monty Anderson, executive secretary of the Seattle, King County Building and Construction Trades Council — representing all the unionized construction workers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, heating and air conditioning installers and multiple other trades who worked on the project — said 3 million hours of labor went into the building.

“Everything you see here, from the roofing to the glazing; to everything you don’t see, the electric, the fire suppression, the heating and insulation, the HVAC, the fire dampers, everything done here was done with hands,” said Anderson. “And of those 3 million hours, every single worker that came on this job had health care, had a retirement, and got professional training.”

He praised the tenacity and determination of the workers who got up every day and came to work to complete the job during a pandemic.

What was just a few years back a muddy puddle of a construction site, he said, is now something that the workers can point to and say, “I built that.”

Anderson added that when he entered the construction business in the late 80s, it was a family affair, with sons following fathers into the trades. Since then, he said, the business has intentionally sought to bring diversity in both gender and race. He said 30% of those who worked on the facility were people of color.

As the work has progressed, the cost has been a moving target.

When the facility was first planned by the Port in 2014, the proposed budget was $344 million and the schedule anticipated completion in 2018. The final budget is $968 million and the project is finishing four years behind the original schedule.

However, the project is not funded by taxpayer dollars. It comes out of airport revenue that flows from airline ticket fees and other airline service charges, from retail tenants at the airport, from parking charges, from fees on taxis, shuttles, from rental car facilities, and other fees.

Port Commissioner Calkins said the ballooning of the budget came down to three factors.

First, over the course of the project, the Port and its partners decided at several points to increase both the capacity of the facility and the services it would offer.

Second, he said, “virtually every year we’ve seen a double digit cost increase related to materials and labor.”

Third, in the past two years, the COVID pandemic caused further disruption and added costs.

Now that the project is complete, along with the recently opened expansion to the north satellite concourse, there are more improvement projects in the works, he said.

He listed a revamp of the north part of the ticketing concourse where Alaska’s ticket counters are; upgrades to the south satellite; and a significant expansion of airport dining and retail between concourses C and D.

“We’re moving into a very healthy time for the Port financially and so we can make commitments to big growth,” Calkins said.

The International Arrivals Facility is a major milestone in the expansion and upgrading of the airport.

Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines will be the biggest beneficiaries.

Eric Philips, a Delta senior vice president, said by August the airline will offer nearly 45 weekly, nonstop flights to Amsterdam, Incheon, London, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo.

Alaska will benefit through its membership in the Oneworld alliance, which allows its mileage members to book flights with major international airline partners, including British Airways, Japan Airlines and American Airlines, said Nat Pieper, an Alaska senior vice president.

“We have a global network that we can sell and market as our own,” said Pieper in an interview. “If those connections are seamless, it just helps Alaska across the board.”

On Thursday, the supporting acts were joyous.

The theme of welcoming diverse peoples to the region began when a group of Japanese drummers led the invited guests from the main terminal into the newly-completed great hall.

With Montero playing before the speeches, the ceremony was closed by Seattle Opera singer Ginger Costa-Jackson, whose powerful voice filled the giant space as she sang an aria from “Barber of Seville.”

She followed that with “Over the Rainbow,” which in “The Wizard of Oz” led to another Emerald City.