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SEA Airport: Then and Now

July 16, 2019

Happy 70th Birthday SEA Airport. We don’t think you look a day over 60 and soon with some new hardware you’ll soon be back in your prime. Here’s a look back on where you’ve been and a glimpse of where you’re going. 




SEA Airport was dedicated on July 9, 1949. The original building cost $3,200,000 and was designed for 900 passengers per hour. The lobby in 1949 is shown below.

The Sea-Tac lobby in 1949


SEA Airport's annual passenger count hits the one million passenger mark for the first time.


With the World’s Fair of 1962, passenger levels jumped to 2 million. The terminal train is shown in the 70s.

STS airport train in the 70s


SEA was ranked the 19th busiest airport in the country. 


The airport was the 16th busiest in the nation


The 9th busiest in the nation



  • Last year, 49.8 million passengers traveled through SEA Airport
  • Throughout the year, we average 136,000 passengers going through the airport every day
  • If we were a city, SEA would be the sixth largest city in the state of Washington behind Bellevue 
  • The summer months of  June through August are the busiest, with one-third of our total passengers and an average of nearly 170,000 travelers per day 
    For the first time ever, more than 5 million passengers go through SEA in one month during July and August 2018 
  • The airport is the 8th busiest and the fastest growing airport in the nation


  • The Central Puget Sound region will grow by an additional one million people by the year 2035 
  • There are currently $3.7 billion in improvements in progress to make the airport more efficient 
To learn how the changes at SEA Airport will meet future demand, take a look at the Sustainable Airport Master Plan Near-Term Projects.




The first restaurant at the temporary terminal of SEA Airport was a Quonset hut called “The Pantry,” run by a local restauranteur.



There are 42 dining options open with cuisine from around the world. The priority is still to focus on increasing options for travelers and to support small and local businesses in the region. 



September 1, 1947
Regular scheduled commercial air traffic officially began from SEA by Northwest Airlines and Western Airlines with 10 flights daily. The photo below is Western Airlines' first flight of the Convair in 1948.

Western Airlines Convair

By this time, there were 28 major airline carriers. 



  • The 31 airlines offer 91 nonstop domestic and 29 nonstop international destinations.
  • The airport averages 1,300 operations per day, takeoffs and landings.



SEA established the Waste Minimization program that keeps more than one-third of all airport trash out of the landfill.

SEA Airport was a national pioneer in starting a recycling program for airlines. Before the recycling program, SEA had one large dumpster where all plane waste went. With the support of Alaska Airlines, the largest airline at the airport, the program shifted to charging airlines for garbage disposal. But recycling was free. 

SEA set a goal to recycle 50 percent of solid waste generated at airport-operated facilities.


During the North Satellite Modernization project in progress, 95 percent of construction waste will be recycled and diverted from landfills.

SEA is setting sustainability goals at a time when we’re taking on the skyrocketing travel demands of the booming region. Our goal is to power every flight fueled at SEA with sustainable aviation fuel by 2028.

  • Watch a video about sustainable aviation fuels


  • Learn about the Sustainable Airport Master Plan, the blueprint for changes at SEA Airport to meet future passenger and cargo demand while protecting the environment.

Wildlife and Habitat


SEA Airport was built on land that housed facilities for raising domestic rabbits, a frog farm, a mushroom farm, and a dog kennel.

1947 Field that is now home to the airport

An expensive bird purchased for the Woodland Park Zoo flew around the basement, then escaped out of a vent.

SEA was the first in the United States to hire a full-time biologist to address problems posed by birds that live and migrate in the areas surrounding the airport.

Owl trapped and relocated at Sea-Tac Airport


In August 2007, SEA became the world's first airport to use avian radar in a long-term monitoring effort to detect potentially hazardous bird activity on and near an airport. In close collaboration with the University of Illinois, Center of Excellence for Airport Technology (CEAT), Sea-Tac now uses three Sicom-Accipiter radars continuously like a powerful pair of eyes that see much farther and higher than human observers, who are limited to viewing only during daylight hours. 



SEA became one of three airports in the nation that created a home for bees. The airport launched plans to convert 1,000 acres into a home for 500,000 bees. The program was a partnership with the Port of Seattle, local non-profit The Common Acre, and The Urban Bee Company.

Bees on a flower at Sea-Tac Airport


The Port has created, restored, or enhanced 177 acres of wetlands and buffers near SEA Airport, including planting approximately 350,000 native trees and shrubs.

SEA Firsts


May 31, 1945 
First transcontinental flight by Northwest Airlines coast to coast in a DC-3 that took 17 hours.

Northwest Flight with Sea-Tac hangars being constructed

October 3, 1959
The First regular jet service started in 1959 when a Pan Am 707 took off for Honolulu. That same year, Japan Airlines became the first Asian-flag airline to operate at SEA when its DC-7 Supercourier arrived from Tokyo on June 28.

July 1, 1970 
With the airport expansion, the first 747 service at SEA connected Seattle, Chicago, Tokyo, and New York.

November 17, 1984
The Supersonic Concorde departs SEA for the first time. 


The International Arrivals Facility that is currently in progress will have the first aerial walkway of its kind — an 85-foot high glass walkway above the taxiway with planes traveling underneath and views of Mt. Rainier. Watch a video of what's to come.

Inclement Weather



SEA became the first airport to receive FAA approval for low-visibility flights.



During the historic snowstorm in February, SEA Airport removed three million cubic yards of snow from airport ramps and runways. That’s enough snow to fill 48 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Snowplows at Sea-Tac Airport clearing the runways Feb 2019

Energy Efficiency


September 1973

SEA worked to reduce electricity by 15 percent. This was shortly after Seattle introduced the Kill-a-Watt campaign on July 17, 1973. 


The Port’s goal is to be the greenest and most energy-efficient airport in the country. 

The North Satellite modernization project will be the third LEED Silver-certified building at the airport. The environmentally friendly facility — using sustainable design, mitigating construction impacts, and operating the building with energy savings — is designed to maximize the health and productivity of travelers and staff, use fewer resources, reduce waste and negative environmental impacts, and decrease life cycle costs to operate the building. 

North Satellite view

Air Cargo


After 1949

The Flying Tiger Line flew commercial air cargo routes through 1988. This image shows a Flying Tiger DC-8 being loaded in the 1970s.


Flying Tiger DC-8 airline being loaded


Air cargo 1955

September 2, 1966
The first scheduled commercial polar flight began on the “Knud Viking” between Copenhagen and Seattle. The next day’s return flight to Copenhagen carried 2,400 pounds of fresh King salmon from Seattle to Denmark.

Air cargo volumes were 259,000 tons, ranking 16th in the U.S. and 29th in the world.


SEA was ranked 18th among U.S. airports by air cargo tonnage in 2017

  • 432,315 metric tons of air cargo was handled through Sea-Tac in 2018
  • 59 percent of international air freight travelled to/ from Asia, 30 percent to/from Europe

Fish still fly with the Alaska Airlines Salmon-Thirty-Salmon bringing in 18,000 pounds of first Copper River Salmon every year. 

Copper River Salmon

And SEA remains a major cargo hub to get in-demand Washington products like seafood and fruit to global markets.  

  • Watch how Taylor Shellfish gets its products to global markets quickly through SEA Airport.




The first parking lot opened for 527 cars. The 1968 parking shuttle is below.

Sea-Tac Shuttle bus


The SEA Airport parking garage is the second largest parking lot (under one roof) in the world. The photo below is the parking garage in 1981.

Sea-Tac Parking garage 1981

Now, travelers have many choices on how to get to the airport like:

  • Link light rail and buses
  • Biking, with places to store and park your bike
  • Ridesharing
  • Airport shuttles 
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