Is Sea-Tac Airport Really the Worst in the Country for International Travel?

SEATTLE — If you’ve traveled through an airport during the winter holiday season, you’ve likely experienced the usual holiday horrors: weather delays, canceled flights, grueling lines, miserable crowds.

Throw in the stress of traveling abroad – and factors like customs and citizenship status to consider – and holiday travel can be downright scary.

If you’re flying to or from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a recent study suggests it could be a complete nightmare.

A ranking by travel guide website Upgraded Points named Sea-Tac Airport the worst in the country for international travel this winter holiday season (the week before Christmas through New Year’s).

International travel is expected to surpass 2019 levels for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the survey.

The study analyzed 41 major international airports in the country with data from US Customs and Border Protection. The researchers took into account passenger wait times at customs, the average maximum wait time for US citizens and non-citizens, and the percentage of passengers who cleared customs in less than 15 minutes.

Sea-Tac ranked worst for international travel based on last year’s average wait time during the winter holiday season, which was 31.6 minutes, according to the study. The national average wait time was just under 23 minutes.

But at Sea-Tac, typical indicators of long wait times may not tell the whole story.

Customs operates Sea-Tac’s international arrivals facility, which is set to open in 2022, airport spokesman Perry Cooper said.

The facility is designed as the first “Bags First” facility at a major airport in the country, Cooper said, referring to a process where international passengers collect their bags before seeing a customs agent.

The process, which customs first rolled out at several smaller airports, aims to streamline the international arrivals process by having passengers fill out less paperwork, speak to just one customs agent and, of course, claim their bags you are first and only once.

The wait times used in the study were measured from the time passengers leave the plane to the time they reach customs, and since Sea-Tac passengers go through customs last, “this adds to the wait and pick-up process your bag,” Cooper said.

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Customs spokesman Jason Givens said the study “erroneously reported excessive wait times that were not based on actual date/time stamping by the (Customs) automated systems.”

Orlando, with the fourth longest wait time, is also a “Bags First” airport, Cooper added.

Unlike most U.S. airports, Sea-Tac also added international routes during the pandemic (from carriers such as Qatar, Turkish, Finnair and Tahiti Nui) and now has more international service than before the pandemic, Cooper said.

Sea-Tac has already surpassed its pre-pandemic levels for international travelers this year (and set a record this summer for the busiest day of international travel in its history), a mark that most airports in the country have not reached, Cooper said.

Airport officials expect passenger volume at Sea-Tac to increase this winter holiday season by about 11 percent from 2022, reaching levels close to pre-pandemic levels. Passenger volumes are forecast to peak on Saturday with a total of 158,000 departing, arriving and connecting passengers. The Tuesday (157,000) and Wednesday (155,000) after Christmas are also expected to be particularly busy.

Miami and Austin airports ranked second and third for international travel this season, with average wait times of 30.6 minutes and 29.2 minutes last year.

Orange County’s John Wayne Airport reported the shortest average wait time during the 2022 winter holidays at 4.6 minutes, though researchers said it’s worth noting that the international airport is among the nation’s shortest relation to passenger traffic.

Sea-Tac, on the other hand, was ranked 14th in total international travel volume, but the study found there was no strong correlation between immigration wait times and airport size.

Instead, factors such as arrival time and citizenship status significantly influence how long it takes travelers to clear international checkpoints, the study found. Arrivals between 5am and 3pm face longer wait times than other times of the day, and if you’re not a US citizen, expect to wait nearly 70% longer.

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