Renovated Sea-Tac terminal to open for boom in summer travel

With many people fully vaccinated and ready to take their first flights in more than a year, summer air travel is set to soar. Just in time, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is opening up a newly welcoming space at its busy North Satellite Terminal.

The facility, home of the N gates that serve mostly Alaska Airlines flights, has been expanded and updated in a $700 million project that will fully open at the end of June, a month ahead of schedule.

After a year when Sea-Tac and all the businesses that depend upon it have been rocked by the pandemic, airport Managing Director Lance Lyttle said he’s “extremely encouraged” by the signs of society opening up.

“As more and more people get vaccinated, we’re seeing what we call ‘revenge travel,’” Lyttle said.

He’s delighted that construction work on the North Satellite project, which broke ground more than four years ago, continued and even accelerated through the pandemic and is almost complete.

Passengers departing from an N gate this summer won’t escape the usual security hassles, but once through to the ticketed side, they’ll find more light, more space and new food and retail options.

A media preview Tuesday of the not-quite-finished facility showed what will greet passengers as they disembark from the underground airport trains at the North Satellite.

Traveling up the escalator, they’ll rise toward a giant sculpture by local artist John Grade immediately overhead, representing the expanding root structure of an old-growth Western red cedar, and high above that, an arched ceiling accented with wood to evoke a flowing river.

At the top, across a light-filled central atrium, travelers will see jets moving around just outside through a 45-foot-tall, floor-to-ceiling wall of windows.

Behind the escalator, a low stage will showcase musical performances. Around the edges of the atrium and on the mezzanine, food options will include P.F. Chang’s, Beecher’s Cheese, Tundra Taqueria and SEA Roast Coffee House.

And while Sunbelt airports may favor solar panels, Sea-Tac is putting our local weather to work. The rain from the North Satellite roof will drain into underground tanks and be used to flush the restroom toilets, saving an estimated 2.8 million gallons of potable water annually.

Expansion for more traffic

The total cost of the project — paid for by airline fees and passenger ticket fees as well as the income the airport generates — is now expected to be $10 million below the $710 million budgeted.

The original North Satellite at Sea-Tac opened in 1973, when just over 5 million people a year passed through the airport. In 2019, that number had swelled to nearly 52 million.

Lyttle said passengers used to the old facility, with low ceilings and limited light leaving it dark in typical Pacific Northwest weather, will “transition from the 20th century to the 21st” when they enter the new space.

“With the glass walls, natural light, high ceilings, the dining and retail options, the spectacular visual art and a stage for performances, it will be a totally different experience,” said Lyttle.

Two new gates opened Tuesday to help handle an increase in traffic around Memorial Day. Lyttle said Sea-Tac is projecting as many as 40,000 passengers per day will go through security during the Memorial Day holiday.

A further eight gates will open by the end of June, while two more will open later once one of them is adjusted to allow bigger widebody jets to dock there.

That will allow Alaska’s new partner, American Airlines, to use that gate for 787s and 777s as well as the typical narrowbody 737s that Alaska flies.

Eight gates had already opened in 2019 when the first phase of the North Satellite expansion was completed, so the additions will bring the total to 20 gates. Sixteen of those will be leased exclusively to Alaska Airlines, so that close to half of the local airline’s traffic will come through the terminal.

Emerging from a shattering year

The project is nearing completion after an unprecedented year of losses in the aviation world that delivered a crippling blow to the airport.

“In April last year, you could roll a bowling ball through the airport and not hit anyone,” said Lyttle. That month, just 259,000 people passed through the airport, down from more than 4 million a year earlier.

Many food concessions closed. Uber, Lyft and rental-car companies saw business disappear.

Lyttle said the airport lost about $350 million in 2020 and expects to lose about $100 million this year.

Only government stimulus money kept the airport going and staved off layoffs among the airport staff of about 1,100 people. The airport got $192 million last year and another $37 million in the second stimulus package this year.

“It doesn’t make up all the money lost, but there’s no way we could have survived without it,” said Lyttle.

He said total 2020 passenger traffic was down 61% from pre-pandemic levels, and he expects 2021 traffic to be down 30%. Lyttle anticipates receiving another $150 million from the American Rescue Plan Act later this year.

Overall, about 20,000 people work at Sea-Tac, in associated jobs like cargo handlers, caterers and many others. To protect all the businesses that depend upon it, the airport deferred rent, eliminated guaranteed minimum payments from concession holders and helped them apply for federal aid.

Now, as life begins its return to something like normal, many of the existing food and retail concessions at the airport are open again. Not all the new ones at the North Satellite will be immediately available next month; they will open in multiple phases.

After a larger-than-expected surge during spring break led to long lines out to the parking garage on three occasions in March and April, the airport is adjusting the checkpoints to try to avoid a recurrence next weekend.

As the pandemic cloud over the airport lifts, Oliver Konkel, a resident engineer at the Port of Seattle that operates the airport, noted one silver lining: The traffic slowdown actually accelerated the North Satellite construction project.

He said that because passenger counts were so low last year, the contractors were able to close a few of the gates and shut down all four escalators at one point — something it could never have done during normal times.

“That gained us a month on this project,” said Konkel.