Rantz: Incompetent SeaTac airport design nightmare for Thanksgiving travel

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 are an absolute, confusing and deliberate disaster.

The gates are a seemingly endless journey from baggage claim and passport control. Signs are sparse and discreet, making them easy to miss. Understaffed, two separate lines to get to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), broken escalators, and a confusing layout for Global Entry travelers.

This leads to unnecessary confusion and long wait times, which is not the best first experience for international travelers or returning US citizens.

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The really, really long walk

The IAF design, which debuted in May 2022 after about four and a half years of construction, appears purposefully difficult. It is as if Greta Thunberg consulted on the project with the intention of reducing international travel due to air travel climate concerns. I got to experience the IAF on my 26th November flight back from London.

Passengers will have a long — very long — journey from the gates to their first IAF stop thanks to the 900+ feet long and 85 feet high sky bridge. It’s like walking one and a half times the height of the Space Needle.

Port of Seattle officials are highlighting the “iconic” walkway that allows the 747 to move underneath. This means more flights can start their journeys on time while keeping passengers above ground compared to the underground experience at 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 a grueling 10-hour journey.

The “breathtaking views of the Pacific Northwest” that the Port of Seattle boasts are not worth it. They are also breathtaking, especially when you land after 4:30pm in the winter.

Nightmare in the baggage claim area

After exiting the walkway, you enter through the “dramatic” welcome portal. The space is spacious and open, but the design doesn’t make sense.

Passengers disembark another escalator to baggage claim. Baggage claim carousels have increased from four to seven, which is a clear improvement. But once you’ve collected your luggage, you’re left with figuring out how to navigate needlessly confusing two separate lines before entering the US or getting on a connecting flight.

There are two very small signs directing passengers to enter the advance lines before the main line to meet CBP agents to check your passports. One line is for US visa holders and other eligible travelers and the other is for ESTA holders. But the signs are very, very small – about twice the size of a standard postcard. This created a lot of confusion as to where passengers were supposed to line up because no one could see the signs.

When a family asked for assistance, the only SeaTac employee helping organize the line tripped them up. There were technically three lines for both lines, and American passengers were forced to push the line into the baggage claim area. It was crowded and chaotic as passengers were left to figure out the line on their own. Finally, the lone clerk held up a sign indicating that it was where the end of the line began.

Inexplicably, the Global Entry checkpoint is above baggage claim. This confused several passengers on my flight home.

For those eligible passengers, they will check in at the kiosks, go down the escalators to collect luggage, then try to figure out where to go from there. I’m not sure where they all went, but when I was standing in line I saw a few of them go to the front of the line where a member of staff was holding the line. She asked if they were Global Entry travelers and was then denied.

Entering the frontier with low-cost technology

Instead of having just one line to get to CBP agents like at most international airports, you wait in the advance line to be let into the main line by the SeaTac officer. Once you’re released (usually in rows of 10-15 passengers), you have four opportunities to board without anyone paying enough attention to help.

Each line went to one CBP of only four agents – an inexcusably stupid decision.

If you’re particularly unlucky, you end up in line with a slow family holding the line. Why not have one long line where the person at the front of the line gets called to the next available CBP agent? This ensures that no line is longer or faster than the next; that everyone is treated with the same level of efficiency. So much for the movement of capital.

When you finally get to the CBP agent, they take your photo with an external Logitech desktop webcam. The wire hangs from a plastic bulkhead that holds the webcam. We have to pretend this is stopping the spread of COVID when all it does is make the experience look like they are running on a backup system because the underlying technology is broken.

I have what appears to be the same model webcam. It wasn’t good enough for my Skype FOX News appearances during the early part of the pandemic and I needed to upgrade.

Compare this experience to that in London at Heathrow Airport. It took me 3 minutes to get through. You go through the line (it was only slightly shorter than what I’ve experienced on most of my travels) before entering an automated process where you scan your passport and have a photo taken via a high-tech camera around an entrance that is framed like a metal detector. Once you’re approved, you’re straight through.

On the way out

After exiting your brief session with the CBP agent, you make your way down to the exit. But it’s not as easy to find as you might think.

You hit a fork in the corridor (if you’re careful): one path takes you through secondary security for connecting passengers, the other to the gate. But the signs are so inconspicuous that it’s easy to miss the exit. This happened to me and four others.

Once we got out of the airport, it wasn’t that easy to figure out where to go for ground transportation. Again the signs were sparse and inconspicuous and me I knew where I had to go. Imagine the experience for someone new at the airport.

If you take a rideshare 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 closest to the international passenger exit was broken. Maybe the Port of Seattle provided the escalator maintenance to Sound Transit?

Did the SeaTac management go all the way?

No one designing the new facilities seems to have thought through the process. It looks like it was designed by people who don’t fly internationally.

You won’t know about any problems or inconveniences from the local media coverage surrounding the opening of the facility. They gave us nothing but puff pieces and video press releases from stations like WOKE 5 News. Its cover looked like an infomercial. And because KING 5 focuses much of its news through the lens of social justice, it oddly focuses some coverage on what immigrants and refugees will experience.

The area is certainly bigger and not as dark as the old facility. The luggage was delivered surprisingly quickly, if only because the walk to the carousels took a long time.

But in my experience, the old facility was generally easy to navigate. Passengers don’t particularly care if the facility has local art or low-flow toilets in the bathrooms. If you’re traveling from Asia or Europe, you’ve been on a flight for several hours and you don’t care about the sustainable food lining at the welcome gate.

The good news is that the area is large enough for changes to be made to create a more passenger-focused experience. But given that SeaTac Airport still can’t provide a home experience where you can find a seat at the 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 offers no upgrades.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3:00 PM – 6:00 PM on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast. Follow @JasonRantz Twitter, Instagramand Facebook. Check back often for more news and analysis.

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