February 22, 2021
COVID-19 and travel at SEA Airport
You’re heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Trouble is, the weather report says there’s snow forecast for the morning you leave.
At SEA, we think winter is lovely weather for a plane ride together. We will keep the runways clear and the planes moving safely for you. Here’s more information on how that happens, with answers to your most frequently asked questions from travelers during the February 2019 storm.
Yes we did! We actually start talking about snow while everyone else is still wearing flip flops. Every fall, we hold a Snow Symposium to brief the SEA team and our partners about snow operations for the upcoming season.
Months before the first flake flies, we’re getting ready by:
Keep in mind that Mother Nature does not always follow the rules when she throws a fit. We are ready and staffed up for whatever comes, but when there’s a big snowfall, it takes a little time to get operations back to normal. Safety is always our first priority so we take the time needed to do it right and get you on your way as quickly as possible.
When the flakes finally fall, the goal is to clear one runway in under 30 minutes.
Get more detail about what SEA does before, during, and after a storm and how you can stay in touch.
It’s a team effort that requires complicated collaboration across a number of different partners to get you to where you need to go safely and as quickly as possible. Everyone below is working hard to get you on your way:
Here’s the gist for snowflakes who just want the tip of the iceberg:
The SEA team is responsible for maintaining the terminal and facilities, including:
When the weather goes south, the SEA team opens the Snow Control Center, a central management facility for all airport snow and ice control activities. The Snow Team is staffed 24/7 during the snow incident and runs inclement weather operations with multiple representatives from Airport Operations, Aviation Maintenance, and Customer Service.
The airline partners are working hard at:
They have a big job and are experts at directing flights in the air and takeoffs and landings at every airport in the country.
Did you know:
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staffs and manages security checkpoints and screening at every airport in the country. They also manage the Federal Air Marshals program and train their own explosive detection canines.
We also rely on our friends with the National Weather Service who host webinars to answer questions on weather conditions that help us prepare for future shifts. There is also a weather station right at the airport.
Maintaining the roads on the way to the airport is a cooperative effort by several local governments.
Port of Seattle/SEA Airport maintains the following areas and services:
The City of SeaTac maintains:
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) manages:
Get WSDOT updates
The simple answer is yes, but it’s a more complicated question depending upon what you mean — the terminal, or the airspace and flight operations.
The airport facility itself is always open, and it’s extremely rare and a very limited duration when all three runways have ever been closed. Even during 9-11, the SEA airport terminal remained open as the Federal Aviation Administration closed U.S. airspace. The last time there was any facility closure was four hours during the 2012 ice storm.
The SEA staff keeps the airport infrastructure open and operating so flights can take off and land.
Airport employees are working around the clock, runways are getting cleared, and the snowplows and shoveling staff are out maintaining the terminal area. A significant weather event could mean reduced operating hours for airline ticket counters, TSA checkpoints, or restaurants and retailers due to limited supplies and staffing, but rest assured that this is the exception rather than the rule. Another factor is the ability of TSA and retail staff to get to work, but there are always plans for essential airport staff to stay near the airport at hotels or in conference rooms.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has the authority to restrict the U.S. airspace and slow down arriving or departing flights.
And the airlines and pilots make the final decision about whether flights can operate based upon weather conditions.
For example, during the February 2019 storm, Alaska Airlines proactively cancelled two days’ worth of flights during the worst part of the storm until conditions improved. We all want you to stay safe, so we encourage you to stay home if you can during very bad weather conditions, take advantage of flexible cancellation policies, and check with your airline on your flight status.
But if you have to travel, there’s a great chance that the terminal is open and some flights are operating. We’re here to help and we will keep you warm and safe.
Even in the worst conditions, the airport stays open and the airlines keep operating. It just might be slower than normal if there is a ground stop.
Managing air traffic is a complicated dance that is handled by the FAA. Air traffic in our region is impacted by what’s happening in the rest of the complicated national system, like delays or heavy weather in the rest of the country. For example, if there is a ground stop in San Francisco and there are planes traveling there from SEA, that could impact flights.
The FAA has several tools to manage heavy weather:
Local weather at the airport is of course a factor. On a typical sunny day, SEA could see 50 airplane arrivals per hour. On a hazy or foggy day, it could decrease to 28 arrivals per hour. A ground stop is a situation when aircraft cannot come to the airport due to snow or fog (or other conditions like smoke) and they are being held in another airport like Portland or San Francisco.
Once airport landings are approved, the next task is to get airplanes in the sky sequenced correctly and start letting them back in. “Metering” begins, which means maintaining a level of separation between planes appropriate for the conditions and letting them land. Every flight is different depending upon departure time, destination, and international or domestic. So don’t assume that all flights are delayed — check with your airline for the most up to date information.
We really truly hope so and we are working efficiently and safely to ensure that airport conditions don’t slow you down. Here’s what impacts those decisions on your flight:
De-icing operations are managed by the airlines and can be the number one thing that impacts departure. So keep in mind that although the door to the aircraft might close at the scheduled departure time, the plane will push back from the gate and get de-iced before your departure. And that it’s essential for your safety.
The FAA makes complicated decisions to assess every single flight. And arrivals and departures are handled differently. So, if there are delays in arriving flights, don’t assume that your flight will be delayed and vice-versa.
The first thing to know is that the airlines manage flight departures, arrivals, and schedules throughout the year, including bad weather conditions. So your first call should be to your airline, not the airport.
We know it’s frustrating to wait on the plane after landing. But there are several reasons this can happen at any airport, especially a fast-growing one like SEA where we see around 1,300 daily aircraft departures and arrivals. Airlines create their schedules with optimistic operating scenarios in mind — weather, staffing, no mechanical delays — and since airports cannot regulate the timing or number of planes scheduled, everybody works together to support the most harmonious and safe daily operation.
There are four main reasons it can take longer than expected to taxi to your gate after landing:
Here’s how to stay in the know on the snow:
1. Register for your airline’s text alerts
If the airline has not said that your flight is delayed, you should come to the airport and expect your flight to depart.
2. Check flight status
3. Or download the SEA Airport app and set up alerts
4. Have a backup plan
Remember that long-term forecasts are difficult to make. Check before you head to the airport, allow more time than usual, and recognize that you may not know until right before the plane leaves if it’s on time. And have a backup plan for getting to and from the airport.
Check the flight widget on the SEA Airlines home page. This is the same information seen on the in-terminal flight information displays and comes directly from the airlines. You can use this page to check the status of specific flights or delays to or from another airport. For example, to check delays or cancellations for flights to Chicago, select the Chicago airport under Arrivals and Departures, then leave the airline blank.
Did you know that the airport has an app where you can get flight updates and watch checkpoint wait times? It’s available for iOS and Android
Updates are posted to the Sea-Tac Airport Facebook page and Twitter feed. We will keep you up to date on big events, but keep in mind that things change fast and we can't provide 24/7 real time updates.
Join our text list to be notified of a weather incident, traffic, parking, and other airport news
Want to know what’s happening in your destination airport? FlightAware tracks daily by airport delays and cancellations. To track SEA flight status, input KSEA into the Filter all Stats by Airport box.
Get the latest conditions and forecast from NOAA/The National Weather Service station located right at the airport.
View service alerts or sign up for email and text alerts.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has a great social media presence and maintains many of the roads around the airport.
Did you know that SEA was the first U.S. airport in 1990 to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to fly using instruments in low visibility conditions? So we have procedures to operate in heavy weather conditions and to keep the airport open. But, the airport does not make the final decision whether a flight takes off or lands.
Those decisions are made by the following parties:
The Federal Aviation Authority’s Air Traffic Control directs plane traffic in and out of an airport, and sets guidelines for operation and best practices. Controls ground stop and ground delays.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Weather Service (NWS) serve as an advisor to provide guidance on storm conditions and impacts.
1. Come to the airport and help us shovel (just kidding — we have it under control with all available resources working hard including local contractors who are standing by when we need help).
Did you know that in the February 2019, the SEA team three million cubic yards of snow from airport ramps and runways? That’s enough snow to fill 48 Olympic-sized swimming pools!
2. Stay safe
Our first priority is to keep you safe at the airport, but the rest of the journey is up to you. The most important thing is for you to get yourself to the airport safely.
3. Plan for extra time to get to the airport and get through. We know it’s particularly tough on those early morning flights, but we will be here with you with a cup of coffee, a smile, directions to the fastest line, and some help getting you out of here as quickly as humanly possible.
4. Don’t expect business as usual
When Mother Nature throws a fit, it’s never going to be the same-old-same-old. Your journey may not be run of the mill — but it also may not be as bad as you expect. Don’t expect major closures (which rarely ever happen), but do think ahead about how you will handle a slower than normal day. Join us in preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best — and working hard to make it happen.
5. Stay informed
6. Dress for inclement weather
We get that you’re on your way to Hawaii and just can’t wait to show off your pedicure. We are jealous and we will think of you as we shovel! But be sure to arrive at the airport dressed for the Seattle weather. In some cases as with ground boarding, you may need to walk in the snow or ice. We don’t want you to freeze your feet or slip on winter weather.
1. Monitor the media
If a storm is impacting airport operations, the media is the first to know about it.
2. Watch social media
During weather conditions the team is online and in the terminal for extended hours, but don't provide 24/7 real time coverage. Because conditions change rapidly, frequent updates could be irrelevant 30 minutes later. Major changes and stops are provided on social media.
3. Check the website
Watch the airport website for updates like:
4. Download the SEA Airport App
And use the Check Flight Status widget to get the most recent flight information.
Without fail, the best first step is to call your airline.
February 22, 2021
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