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Why Can the Checkpoints at Sea-Tac Be Such a Challenge?

June 9, 2019

You or someone you know may have experienced long, winding lines at the security checkpoints during one of your last visits to Sea-Tac Airport. Our goal is to get everyone through in less than 20 minutes, and overall that is the average; however, peak periods can be unpredictable, and you may find much longer waits especially in the mornings. Why does this happen? Does the airport plan for this?

There are definite challenges to the process from staffing to the physical structure of our terminal. We do have management teams planning for every day and investment strategies for the future. Let’s dig into some of the details to help you understand.

Why do lines meander all over the place?

A Sea-Tac Airport "Pathfinder" holds an "End of Line" sign to indicate where security checkpoing lines can be joined by newly arrived passengers, Aug., 2016

During one of our peak periods, you may have experienced our overflow checkpoint queues. It’s not unusual for an airport to have overflow lines, but here at Sea-Tac one of our biggest challenges is the physical layout of our terminal that has been with us for decades. In short, if we knew we’d have this much traffic back when the terminal was built, it would not have been designed the same way! Given space constraints, we find imaginative and efficient ways to make it work.

Overall, Sea-Tac just doesn't have the space for queues as do other airports. For example, the space in front of our largest checkpoint, #3, is about 7,000 square feet. At other airports, that might be their smallest checkpoint. For example, Las Vegas has 20,000 to 30,000 square feet of space for their largest checkpoints and they have about the same amount of annual passenger volume. Physically, we just can’t open the same amount of space because right next door are airline ticket counters, and then the vehicle drives, and then the airport parking garage (more about future plans included below).

So, to manage peak periods we allow overflow lines to, what we might politely say, meander like a river. We make sure we don't block exits or escalator access for outbound passengers or clog ticketing areas for inbound travelers. For instance, our overflow line from #3 goes south around an escalator (avoiding travelers exiting from the B concourse and heading down escalators to bag claim), then back around to our breezeway in zigzag lanes behind the Delta ticket counters. (Yes, it can seem like an amusement park line!) Checkpoint #2 has overflow in the same breezeway as going north as there is nowhere for the line further south due to the international ticket counters.

What happens in the worst-case scenario?

In the worst case, during a peak period when lines are the longest, we plan to have most people go to #3 because this checkpoint has the most processing lanes. It often looks like the longest queue, but with more general screening lanes open, it also is the fastest and most efficient. If lines continue to grow, we have them double-back towards the escalators, past the checkpoint to the north (#4), down the stairs near the D exit, across the skybridge, and into the parking garage. For those who need assistance, there are elevators available. If you have questions, check with our Pathfinders who organize the lines.

Passengers at Sea-Tac Airport wait in long security lines at Checkpoint 4

During busy peak hours, wait times can be up to 45-60 minutes. We appreciate everyone’s patience. Staff works hard to communicate what’s happening as best as they can. If you’ve got questions, ask Pathfinders or customer service staff in blue/teal or red shirts.

Don’t you know how many people are coming and you can prepare for that?

From the outside, this can seem like a straightforward task. The TSA does work with the airlines to get passenger projections for every hour of the day. As you can imagine, some variables are unpredictable. The biggest is predicting when a passenger for a flight will arrive. Their flight may depart at 10:00 a.m., but what time will they come? 8:00 a.m. or last minute at 9:30 a.m.? Or, somewhere in between? The difference in the wait times can vary dramatically from one 20 or 30-minute period to the next, so a rush of arrivals can slow lines down. Plus, the numbers can deviate from projections when airlines sell new tickets.

Another factor is the busy cruise season when 70 percent of total cruise passengers come to the airport. Cruise lines drop off passengers in the morning even if their flights are scheduled much later in the day. Adding to the unpredictability, cruisers may come quite early, in different stages, or all at the same time creating a big rush.

Why don’t you have all checkpoint lanes open during peak periods?

Just like other employers, the TSA is challenged to hire and retain employees in the robust economy of the Puget Sound region. We appreciate our TSA partners and appreciate the hard work they do every day (please give them a ‘thanks’ when you can). If they don’t have enough staff to open all of our checkpoint lanes, however, that condition diminishes the number of passengers TSA agents can safely screen. Remember, their job is to make sure your travels are safe. From a line standpoint, fewer open lanes cause a bottleneck and can create long wait times.

What about canines? Don’t they make things faster?

The TSA changed the protocol for how the canines work checkpoints. The current protocol is slower than it was and, in most cases, won't be any faster than general screening.

Why am I pointed to wait in the longer line? Is that correct?

It sounds counter-intuitive, but, yes, this direction is frequently correct – the longest lines can be the fastest. The reason is more checkpoint lanes are open and the wait time is usually less. This scenario often happens at checkpoint #3, our largest checkpoint with nearly twice as many lanes.

The common misperception of how long it will take is due to the converging of overflow lines in the breezeway between #2 and #3. While the line at checkpoint #2 will look shorter, it doesn’t have as many lanes and we typically see a longer wait. Pathfinders will direct travelers to #3. A traveler may look at the line and think, ‘hey, that line is a lot longer, you want me to go there?’ In reality, the wait is shorter and Pathfinders are on hand to let you know which line is fastest. You may choose whether or not to follow their guidance and get into whichever line you’d like, of course.

Can you add more TSA Pre® Lanes? Do you have too many TSA PreCheck lanes?

Passengers mve through security at Sea-Tac Airport, Sept., 2018

We get questions on both sides of this topic. For greatest efficiency, two checkpoints are set aside specifically for TSA Pre® — checkpoints #1 and #4. By mid-June, the Port will add another lane to #4 and reconfiguration of #1 will add another lane there sometime in July. That may seem like a lot of TSA PreCheck for five checkpoints, but remember, many more general screening lanes are available than the 25-30 percent dedicated to TSA PreCheck. Whether you take advantage of expedited screening or not, overall, it reduces the number of travelers who go through general screening. This fact may also be true of CLEAR lines. These paid options may be worth the cost for frequent flyers.

Located at the far south end of ticketing past the international airline counters, is the little-known secret that #1 is now open daily until 4 p.m. for TSA PreCheck and CLEAR customers.

What can I do to be prepared for potentially long lines?

Download the Sea-Tac App on your smartphone to see real-time checkpoint wait times. Be prepared — print your boarding pass at home, and know what you can or cannot pack. Arrive early — two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. It is better to get screened quickly and have time to wait (or sample new food and retail choices) than to be late and potentially miss your flight.

Are you planning for anything to help the checkpoint situation?

Sea-Tac staff continues to plan more solutions for checkpoint queues. This summer, we’ve added additional staff, including four full-time Pathfinders and eight Pathfinders. Also, we hired a private customer service contractor whose employees will help TSA staff with divesting duties — when you receive direction about what is alright to keep in your bag, and what needs to go in a bin through the scanner. Using contractors for these duties allows TSA agents to open additional lanes.

Also, we employ new technology for automated checkpoint wait times to better estimate queues at checkpoints #2, #4, and #5. The infra-red system tracks the lines in real-time, and this data is posted on terminal flight information displays, and the homepage of the Sea-Tac Airport App. Checkpoint #3 will be covered by the system later this summer.

Looking ahead, we need significant investments to meet future needs for customer service, safety, sustainability, and efficiency. The Port of Seattle and FAA are conducting an environmental review of more than 30 Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) Near-Term Projects to do just that. Currently, we are designing and planning for upcoming additional checkpoint reconfigurations. Other future highlights include a new terminal with 19 gates and an automated people mover with three stations connecting the rental car facility, new terminal, and main terminal. Near-Term Projects will be completed or under construction by 2027.

Today, with more than $3 billion in capital development projects underway, passengers will see something new at Sea-Tac Airport every 90 days!

Follow along with what is in progress and coming soon
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