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TSA line stretching into Seattle parking garage caused hour-plus waits

A busy weekend for Alaska cruises contributed to the long queue at SEA

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Nate Hovee/Getty Images)

Security lines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport stretched all the way back into the parking garage over the weekend, with some travelers reporting hours-long waits that caused them to miss flights.

“We apologize and are listening,” the airport said Saturday in a travel alert posted to Twitter. “Please give yourself plenty of time to get through security to reach your gate.”

Travelers like Carolyn Drake waited in security lines that stretched into a parking garage at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Sept. 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

Airports beset by labor shortages have struggled to keep up with travel demand all summer, especially in Europe, where lines at some airports extended for hours outside the terminal. Seattle’s waits did not reach that level, but the airport acknowledged in its tweet that the lines were an “extreme challenge.”

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Carolyn Drake and her husband arrived at the airport at 10:45 a.m. Sunday for a 12:55 p.m. flight to Philadelphia. After checking their bags at the curb and entering the terminal, they were directed back out and into the parking lot, where the security line began, she said in an email.

It was 12:35 p.m. by the time they made it through security. They spent 45 minutes in line in the parking lot, then were separated when staff split up the lines inside the terminal.

“It was insanely crowded, but it was like organized chaos, with lines winding every which way,” she said.

After finding each other post-security, Drake and her husband made it to their gate at 12:40 p.m., just before the boarding doors closed.

“I can’t imagine what we could have done differently to avoid this,” Drake said. “We did everything right — we arrived 2 hours early, we checked our bags and only had small carry-ons, we checked into our flight online ahead of time, we had our IDs and boarding passes ready to go.”

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Airport spokesman Perry Cooper said in an email that the queues for security between 8:15 a.m. and noon Sunday were “very unusual.” He said it was one of the airport’s busiest days since the beginning of the pandemic, partially because an influx of cruise passengers at the airport in the morning.

According to the Port of Seattle’s cruise schedule, six ships docked in Seattle over the weekend. Similar numbers of ships are expected on some weekends through early October.

Cooper said the airport recorded the longest waits at 90 minutes, and opened additional screening lanes to help deal with the surge. Wait times returned to 10 to 20 minutes after noon, he said.

TSA spokesperson Lorie Dankers said in an email that the agency had 27 of its 29 screening lanes in Seattle open Sunday, with two out of service for maintenance. Still, the surge in passengers in the morning created a backup, with an estimated 28,000 passengers arriving between 6 a.m. and noon, Dankers said.

“I can’t imagine what we could have done differently to avoid this.”
— Carolyn Drake

“That equated to half of the day’s projected travel volume,” she said. “The Alaska cruise ship season is still underway in Seattle and that factored into the large number of departing travelers who were at the airport before noon.”

Port of Seattle staff, who manage the security lines, directed all departing passengers into a single line and then directed them to one of the airport’s five checkpoints once they entered the terminal, according to Dankers.

“That is the reason the line reached the parking garage,” she said, adding that inside the terminal, the line for a single checkpoint peaked at 60 minutes between 10 and 11 a.m.

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Dankers said the weekend’s lines are an example of why passengers should always arrive early and prepared, because wait times can hinge on external factors, like the cruise ship arrivals.

“During certain times of the year and certain days of the week, the number of travelers who need to be screened exceeds the capacity of the security checkpoint,” she said. “By 12:30 p.m. yesterday, the number of departing travelers started to drop and things were back to normal.”

For future passengers, Cooper recommended “virtual queuing” through the airport’s Spot Saver program, a free service which allows travelers to reserve a 15-minute slot to go through security. It is available until 1 p.m. at checkpoints 2, 3 and 5, though it is not compatible with PreCheck or CLEAR.

He also advised passengers to arrive early, especially between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m., when 80 percent of Seattle’s flights are outbound.

“We are nearing prepandemic volumes and the challenges that go with those numbers,” he said, adding that the airport is convening meetings Monday to discuss how to prevent similar wait times in the future.

“We will continue to look into this further with our partners with TSA and work towards determining the next steps forward,” he said.

Seattle has five security checkpoints, and passengers can access all gates from any checkpoint. All offer CLEAR screening, while PreCheck is available at checkpoints 1 and 4 and Premium screening is available at checkpoints 2 and 5, according to its website. Operating hours and live wait times are available on the airport’s app.

For those passengers looking for an alternative airport, Paine Field north of the city reopened to commercial service in 2019 and offers regional flights on Alaska Airlines. Portland and Vancouver airports are each about a three-hour drive from SEA.

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