Leave it to SeaTac Airport to “upgrade” a terminal to make it less efficient and more miserable. The new International Arrivals Facility (IAF) and Passport Control area is an absolute, perplexing, and intentional disaster.
The gates are a seemingly endless journey from baggage claim and Passport Control. The signage is sparse and low-key, making them easy to miss. There’s insufficient staff, two separate lines to reach Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents, broken escalators, and confusing placement for Global Entry passengers.
It leads to unnecessary confusion and long wait times, which is not the best first experience for international travelers or returning American citizens.
The really, really long walk
The IAF design, which debuted in May 2022 after about four and half years of construction, seems purposefully difficult. It’s as if Greta Thunberg consulted on the project with the intent of cutting international travel due to the climate concerns of air travel. I got to experience the IAF during my November 26 flight back from London.
Passengers will walk a long — very long — journey from the gates to their first stop of the IAF thanks to the 900+ foot long, 85-foot high sky bridge. It’s like walking one and half times the height of the Space Needle.
Port of Seattle officials highlight the “iconic” walkway allowing a 747 to drive underneath. It means more flights can start their journeys on time, while keeping passengers above ground versus the underground experience in the old facility. But it also means you’re walking up and down a series of escalators while walking much longer than ever before, usually after an exhausting 10-hour journey.
The “breathtaking views of the Pacific Northwest” that Port of Seattle brags about aren’t worth it. They’re also not breathtaking, particularly when you land after 4:30 pm during the winter.
Baggage Claim area nightmare
Once you exit the walkway, you enter through the “dramatic” Welcome Portal. The space is airy and open, but the design makes little sense.
Passengers go down another escalator to baggage claim. The baggage claim carousels increased from four to seven, a clear upgrade. But once you collect your baggage, you’re left to figure out how to navigate the needlessly confusing two separate lines before entering the US or going to a connecting flight.
There are two very small signs indicating travelers to get into pre-lines before the main line to meet CBP agents to check your passports. One line is for American visa holders and other eligible travelers, and the other for ESTA holders. But the signs are very, very small — about double the size of a standard postcard. It created a lot of confusion as to where travelers were supposed to line up because no one could see the signs.
When one family asked for assistance, the one lone SeaTac staffer helping to organize the line snapped at them. There were technically three rows for the two lines, and American travelers were forced to snake the line into the baggage claim area. It was crowded and chaotic as travelers were left to their own devices to devise the queue. Finally, the lone staffer held up a sign that indicated he was where the end of the line began.
Inexplicably, the Global Entry checkpoint is above baggage claim. It confused several passengers on my flight home.
For those eligible passengers, they would check in at the kiosks, go down the escalators to collect baggage, then try to figure out where to go from there. I’m not sure where they all went but when standing in line, I saw a number of them go to the front of the line where a staffer member held the queue. She asked if they were Global Entry travelers and then were waived in.
Border entry with cheap technology
Instead of having one lone line to get to CBP agents, like at most international airports, you wait in the pre-line to be released to the main line by the SeaTac staffer. Once you’re released (usually in bursts of 10-15 passengers), you had four line options to get into without anyone paying close enough attention to help.
Each line went to one CBP of only four agents — an inexcusably silly decision.
If you’re especially unfortunate, you get into a line with a slow family that holds up the line. Why not have one long line where the person at the front of the queue is called to the next available CBP agent? This ensures that no one line is longer or quicker than the next; that everyone is treated with the same level of efficiency. So much for the equity movement.
When you finally get to the CBP agent, they take your picture with a Logitech desktop external webcam. The wire is dangling from a plastic partition holding the webcam. We’re supposed to pretend this stops the spread of COVID when all it does is make the experience look like they’re working on a backup system because the main technology is broken.
I have what looks to be the same webcam model. It wasn’t good enough for my Skype FOX News appearances during the early portion of the pandemic and I needed to upgrade.
Contrast this experience to that in London at Heathrow Airport. It took me 3 minutes to get through. You walk through the line (it was only somewhat shorter than what I experienced during most of my trips) before going into an automated process where you scan your passport and have a photo taken via a high-tech camera around an entryway that’s shaped like a metal detector. Once approved, you walk right through.
On the way out
Once you exit your brief session with the CBP agent, you head down to the exit. But it’s not as easy to find as you might think.
You hit a fork in the passageway (if you’re paying attention): one way takes you through secondary security for travelers on connecting flights, and the other to the exit. But the signage is so inconspicuous that it’s easy to miss the exit. It’s what happened to me and four others.
Once we exited the airport, it was not as easy to figure out where to go for ground transportation. Again, signs were sparse and inconspicuous, and I knew where I was supposed to go. Imagine the experience for someone new to the airport.
If you’re taking a ride-share vehicle to your home or hotel, you go up one escalator and cross the Sky Bridge, only to go down another escalator. Only the escalator nearest the exit for international travelers was broken. Perhaps the Port of Seattle gave over escalator maintenance to Sound Transit?
Did SeaTac leadership walk the journey?
It seems as if no one designing the new facilities thought through the process. It seems like it was designed by people who don’t fly internationally.
You wouldn’t know of any issues or inconveniences from the local media coverage surrounding the facility’s opening. We were given nothing but puff pieces and video press releases by stations like WOKE 5 News. It’s coverage resembled an infomercial. And since KING 5 focuses much of its news through a social justice lens, it bizarrely focused some coverage on what immigrants and refugees would experience.
The area is certainly larger and isn’t as dreary as the old facility. Baggage was delivered surprisingly quickly, though only because the walk to the carousels took so long.
But the old facility was generally easy to get through in my experience. Passengers don’t particularly care if the facility has indigenous art or low-flow toilets in the bathrooms. If you’re on a trip from Asia or Europe, you’ve been on a flight for several hours and don’t care about the sustainably sourced food paneling of the Welcome Portal.
The good news is that the area is large enough for changes to be made to create a more passenger-focused experience. But given SeaTac Airport still can’t deliver a domestic experience where you can find a seat at a gate or a working USB port to plug your phone into, fixes won’t come quickly.
Passengers want to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. And SeaTac Airport doesn’t deliver with its upgrades.
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