Take Off

What's New at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Air travel is back, somehow both more glorious and frustrating than ever.

By Allison Williams August 22, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Seattle Met

We’re calling it: The airport is the new DMV. Now that driver’s licenses are largely squared away online, the airport is the signature bureaucratic monster that must be reckoned with to achieve that sweet, sweet freedom of travel. But even as flight experiences come with more baggage than we could ever afford to check, Seattle’s airport has never been snazzier—or more connected. Heck, it has more than a hundred nonstop destinations. We checked in (two hours early, of course) with the state of things at Sea-Tac.


Trying to Make SEA Happen

Will Sea-Tac’s rebrand stick?

Pop quiz: What’s the name of Seattle’s airport? Most of us—and Google Maps—say Sea-Tac, a moniker that’s been around since Tacoma helped fund the institution in the 1940s. But since just before the pandemic, that mega mess of runways has been rebranded. Who needs a ride to SEA?

The Port of Seattle, which operates the airport terminal, launched the campaign in January 2020, citing a need for a unified identity beyond its own maritime-y title and the lengthy dual-city label. “We have many people from outside our region using this airport, [confused by] having two city names,” says Julie Collins, director of customer experience and brand strategy. “Of course locally we know what it means.” Taking a page from LAX or PDX, they eyed the airport’s longtime call sign.

Updated airport swag. SEA what they did there?

Image: courtesy SEA 

Not all physical airport signs changed “in one fell swoop” says Collins—not that many of us were flying in pandemic-ridden 2020 anyway—and the SEA rebrand has been mostly evident in new apps like the flySEA (directions to the shortest security line and flight status notifications), SEA Spot Saver (booking TSA screening in advance), and Order SEA (food delivery straight to the gate).

Collins notes that a generation ago, only travel agents used the insider jargon of a three-letter code; today we book flights ourselves and know the difference between JFK and LGA, PHX and PDX. For its part, the city of Tacoma did notice; a 2019 News Tribune editorial protested the idea of being “bumped from the airport’s identity like an economy-class passenger on an overbooked flight to Newark.” But the official name, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, hasn’t budged, and the second city hasn’t complained much since.

But will SEA actually catch on? Collins predicts newcomers and travelers will gradually adopt the usage—and that’s “S-E-A,” each letter aloud, not “sea.” She’s unfazed by recalcitrant locals. “I think that for people who have grown up in this area, who have called it Sea-Tac for 40 years, they will probably continue to call it that. And that’s okay.”


Welcome Home: The New Construction

Sea-Tac’s new international arrivals center—a nearly billion-dollar project paid for by the airport and revenue bonds—brought a soaring 780-foot skybridge that connects the South Satellite to the Main Terminal. Upgrades to passport control facilities and a near-doubling of the number of baggage carousels mean the airport can accommodate more than 2,600 overseas fliers per hour.

Art spruces the new baggage carousels at Sea-Tac.

Image: courtesy SEA


Hang Out

A relaunched SEA Visitor Pass program welcomes non-fliers to enter the terminal without a plane ticket—to welcome loved ones or just revel in a TSA screening for funsies.


The Best Seattle Shopping at Sea-Tac

The city’s best independent retail may be located on the far side of TSA screening: an Elliott Bay Book Company spin-off, a Sub Pop store, and more.

Filson

Never have the rustic yet well-tailored duffel bags from SoDo’s outdoor aesthete looked more appealing than from the new storefront in the North Satellite. Branded beanies and classic flannels make ideal last-minute gifts—but what’s with the total dearth of women’s wear? 

Chalo

While the Sleepless in Seattle nightshirts at Hudson News were dreamed up by some far-off marketing team, the totes, socks, and mugs at this Bellevue-based mini shop are as local as the pipe-smoking, slicker-wearing fisherman on them. 

 

Show Pony

Fremont’s eco-minded boutique does its best to capture the city’s signature style—chic-casual Prairie Underground hoodies, quirky jewelry, and a smattering of printed tees. The counter is stacked with sunglasses, a knowing salute to the fact that Seattleites love to lose their shades. 


The Best New Dining at Sea-Tac

The buffet of dining options at Sea-Tac has grown in the last two years, with many a locally branded restaurant—even if the new Ballard Brew Hall and Capitol Hill Food Hall are about as authentic as the ever-baffling Africa Lounge. The best of the new eateries claim legit Seattle roots.

Floret

The grande dame of Seattle’s vegetarian sceneCafe Flora, gives the airport the rare restaurant designed for the Instagram set. Split between a sunny sit-down dining room and a walk-up counter, the menu is fresh and meatless: a grain bowl mixed with crispy tofu, multiple arugula salads, and a breakfast menu served until early afternoon. Many dishes can be made vegan, nut-free, or gluten-free. Snap a photo of the “you look radishing” neon over statement wallpaper.

LouLou Market and Bar

When Thierry Rautureau, known as the Chef in the Hat, closed both his Seattle restaurants in 2021, we mourned the loss. His LouLou recalls the same mix of French style and cheery irreverence as his old restaurants—farmhouse wallpaper and wicker chairs—albeit with a straightforward menu of nicoise salad and salmon crostini. The best bets are takeaway sandwiches elevated by flaky croissants; it’s not the dearly departed Loulay, but it easily beats Mickey D’s.

French flair at LouLou Market and Bar.

Image: courtesy SEA 

Poke to the Max

It’s heartening to see true-blue local joints get their spot in the airport, even more so when it’s a poke joint that began as a Seattle food truck. The sight of flight crews lined up at this fast-service counter tells you all you need to know about the quality. Poke comes by the pound, and the garlic chicken rice plate, served with a side of classic Hawaiian macaroni salad, makes for a good fish alternative. 


The Lounge Boom at Sea-Tac

Suddenly everyone has an exclusive airport enclave.

“First class,” lamented Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire. “It used to mean a better meal, now it’s a better life.” A quarter century later, we have news for the starlet pining from coach: The stratifications of air travel have gone way beyond the fuselage.

Consider security screenings, separating us into the Clear elite ($189 annually), the TSA Pre-Check privileged ($85 every five years), and the masses who still have to remove their shoes. Boarding is a veritable caste rundown, sub-dividing us into Platinum and Gold-Plus tiers before those who cheap out for basic economy. It begins even before the terminal at Sea-Tac, where hourly parking on the same level as the skybridge, Level 4, is a dollar more per hour than the rest of the garage.

Image: courtesy SEA

 While lounges have existed for ages, they increasingly define the purgatorial wait inherent to air travel. Velvet-roped spaces are bigger, and fancier, than ever, launched far beyond simple corporate workspaces to become exclusive bars, restaurants, nap rooms, bathrooms, or play spaces. 

In 2019, The New York Times cited Sea-Tac’s then-new third Alaska lounge as an example of the boom; since then the airline has announced almost $7 million more in local lounge renovations, plus a giant new 20,000-square-foot space to open in 2026. United, Delta, and British Airways have their own corners of the airport, and the Club SEA serves as a day-pass destination ($45 per visit) for the rest of us.

The amenity is increasingly tied to credit cards, with the Centurion Lounge from American Express tripling in size this year to almost 14,000 square feet in Sea-Tac’s Central Terminal, boasting airfield views from a giant atrium and private phone rooms. A sense of serenity only requires the AmEx Platinum card—and its $695 annual fee.

Lounges dangle an opt-out system for an airport’s nap-denying gate seating and elusive charging outlets. They can even become a destination unto themselves, with AmEx finding 60 percent of frequent travelers arrive extra early to enjoy lounge perks. Given the free drinks, warm cookies, and fast wi-fi, it really is a better life. 


Price at the Pump

$3.48
Price of jet fuel in summer 2022.
$2.11
Price of jet fuel in spring 2019.
34%
Additional cost, on average, for a plane seat in the summer of 2022 versus 2019.
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