Most people view Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as a temporary hub — a stopover on the way from the Point A of their nearby home to the Point B of a warm sandy beach or a small Midwestern hotel conference room. Most of us are just too busy getting to our departure gates to pay close attention or care at all about airport operations. But we decided to stop and take a closer look at Sea-Tac, and we found that there’s a lot going on, from looking at ways to accommodate future growth to enhancing amenities to hiring for behind-the-scenes positions.
TRAINS, PLANES, . . . AND WILDLIFE?
Wildlife biologist Mikki Viehoever is one of scores of airport workers unknown yet essential to airport users. Viehoever’s job exists to protect fliers — those without wings and those with them.
Viehoever’s job is to abate the bird population around the airfield, and it’s an important one. Aircraft coming and going from Sea-Tac experience an average of 60 bird strikes per year. Most go unnoticed by pilots, as they don’t cause any damage. This number could be much higher and lead to accidents and even fatalities without Viehoever’s efforts.
“Previous to this position, I wasn’t even really aware that there were wildlife programs at airports. I didn’t think about it, really,” Viehoever said of her 20-year career working with birds prior to her appointment at Sea-Tac. In fact, Sea-Tac was the first airport in the country to employ a full-time wildlife biologist. Previously, this position would have been a contracted one.
Viehoever uses avian traps in order to keep birds, especially birds of prey, off the airfield and out of the path of departing and arriving aircraft. Each trap is filled with small birds (which are well-cared-for and frequently rotated by staff) to entice large birds of prey, like red-tailed hawks and coopers hawks, to enter the trap. These hawks are then taken to another location and released.
And birds aren’t the only wildlife posing a threat to passengers and aircraft, Viehoever said. Many other animal species call the area immediately surrounding the airport home.
“It’s not something that you think of when you think of airports because they are often highly urbanized,” she said. “We are surrounded by cities here, but we still have patches of habitats. We can see all the trees to the south, and we have them in the west, but there are still wildlife corridors that go through even highly-dense urban areas where deer and coyote and otter still live.”
To combat this, the wildlife team will do whatever it can to make the area around the airport as unattractive to wildlife as possible. Barriers have been placed over ponds so waterfowl can’t land in them, and perimeter fences are routinely checked for weaknesses where animals have been attempting to sneak through.
Like Viehoever, Roberto Arellano — who works in the airport’s subbasement — also is looking out for passenger safety.
Arellano, the day-shift foreman, and his fellow engineers work in the satellite train system, maintaining the 21 train cars that shuttle 12 million travelers per year from one end of the terminal to the other, or out to the North or South satellites. They are responsible for performing a monthly inspection on each car, and preventative maintenance every 15,000 miles.
“One of the more interesting things about our shop here is that we have a multiple (talent) crew — we’ve got painters in here, mechanics, and electronics technicians,” Arellano said. “Every craft comes together to make these things run, and it takes hundreds of hours of maintenance, but nobody notices because they’re only on there for a couple of minutes, and then they get to their flight, and they’re always running.”
The train cars run on an automated loop without much intervention from Arellano and the rest of the team. But that doesn’t mean the technicians aren’t ready at a moment’s notice to take the reins, making the department a 24-hour operation. “We are ultimately responsible for the trains. If you are stuck out on the train, we are the ones that respond, and we call the fire department,” he said.
Training for Arellano’s job is approximately eight months, ensuring each technician knows the train car inside and out so that when an occupied train does need help, the team can troubleshoot the problem on site in minutes, or manually drive the train to the nearest station to provide passengers with alternate transportation.
“We do what we can do to get that train moving to ultimately get the people out, get them to their destination, because that is our number-one goal,” Arellano said.
Viehoever, Arellano, and their teams, of course, aren’t the only ones looking out for the safety of travelers. As one would expect, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also helps keep things secure. Concurrently, the Port of Seattle maintains its own 100-officer police force at the airport with nine special teams, such as SWAT, K-9 explosive detection, and narcotic teams.
The Port of Seattle, in fact, has approximately 18,000 jobs in and around the airport. The majority of those jobs are listed and facilitated by the Airport Jobs office. This subsect of the Port-led parent nonprofit organization, Port Jobs, is modeled after a now-defunct office at the San Francisco International Airport and is unique to Sea-Tac.
The Airport Jobs office at Sea-Tac constantly is filled to the brink with potential employees who are only outnumbered by the endless wall-mounted and turnstile displays that feature job-announcement sheets for the many small businesses and departments within the airport. Last year, the office saw more than 7,000 unduplicated applicants.
“We were formed in cooperation with the Port of Seattle in 1993, and it was a Port-led, blue-ribbon panel that was looking at the economic situation as it was in King County,” said Heather Worthley, Executive Director of Port Jobs. “They wanted to make good jobs in the Port-related economy more accessible to all King County residents.”
Not only does Port Jobs help with resumes, applications, interviews, and getting one’s foot in the proverbial door, but it also assists many of the non-native English speakers with the often-daunting online application process.
“Some of the online applications can be very confusing, even if you are a native-born English speaker,” Worthley said. “And (application websites) do things like freeze and time out and dump everything that you put in. So we do online application workshops here.”
Moreover, Port Jobs supports current employees with opportunities for career advancement through a program called Airport University.
“We partner with two community colleges — Highline College and South Seattle College — to bring credit-bearing classes onsite to the airport and offer them to lower-wage workers at no cost to them so they can get a few college credits under their belt while working,” Worthley said.
Airport passenger perks used to consist of smokers’ lounges, tacky gift shops, and endless television feeds of cable news. Today, it’s all about retail choices — from wining to dining to shopping.
However, due to contract extensions and timing, the leases on more than 90 percent of retail and dining shops within the airport are set to expire over the next several years, causing the tenants to enter into a competitive bidding process to either keep their existing space or lease a new space (or both).
“All my contracts are up now, so we bid on a bunch of stuff,” said small business owner LeeAnne Subelbia, who has been working in and around the airport since the early 1980s. Currently, Subelbia owns Great American Bagel, Bigfoot Food and Spirits, and other eateries scattered throughout the different terminals. “Bidding on stuff in airports, there is so much competition — you have (to compete with) these large companies, and it’s just hard.”
Subelbia explains overhead at the airport also is a bit prohibitive. “Just to build out at the airport is, like, way high — (for example) say you build a house on the outside for $300,000; here, it would be $1.5 million, at least.”
With the competitive nature of the bidding process and the added costs of getting clearance for workers to construct a storefront in a secure airport terminal, it’s no surprise that many airport business owners don’t put all their eggs into the Sea-Tac basket. In fact, many Sea-Tac eateries are secondary locations for businesses that exist separate from the airport, like Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which has locations in Seattle and Bellevue, and Lady Yum, which continues to sell its popular macarons from its flagship store in downtown Kirkland, with a new location in Seattle.
Unlike the vendors who branched into the airport after initially securing a foothold outside it, Subelbia decided to expand her business to an w location while maintaining spaces in the airport, thereby avoiding a portion of the uncertainty in the bidding process by owning her own space, The Stone House Café on Rainier Avenue South in Seattle.
Nonetheless, Subelbia said business at the airport is rewarding, and she has no immediate plans to leave. “I’m going to bid on more contracts, and I hope to get at least one more,” she said.
MORE PASSENGERS, MORE GROWING PAINS
While lengthy wait times at security checkpoints are hardly ideal, this minor annoyance actually conveys the airport’s overwhelming success as it continues to set records for the largest growth in the United States year after year. In 2016, Sea-Tac saw more than 45.7 million air passengers, up 8 percent from the previous year, with projections estimating it will clear 66 million air passengers annually before 2034.
The catalyst for this growth is due in large part to the success of the area itself. Technology titans, such as Microsoft and Amazon, import talent from across the globe, thereby causing the region’s population to swell in time with the increased air traffic. This growth attracted Managing Director Lance Lyttle to Sea-Tac over similar opportunities at major airports in New York and Los Angeles close to two years ago.
“The region is what determines if the airport is going to be successful,” Lyttle said. “So, when I look at how fast this region is growing, that was all very good for the airport. It was the next logical step in my aviation career.”
To keep pace with the growth of the region, many things about Sea-Tac have changed since its inaugural civilian flights in September 1947. The addition of more terminals and a larger footprint are among the biggest of those changes, with many taking place in the latter part of the 20th century. Some of those already are out of date.
“There are several projects that we have going right now,” Lyttle said as he strolled through the airport’s ticketing area, greeting employees and occasionally picking trash off the facility’s floor. He explained that the first project — which broke ground earlier this year — is an expansion and subsequent redesign of the existing North Satellite terminal.
“The existing structure was built back in the 1970s, and it actually looks and feels like it was built in the 1970s. So, we have to get that up to speed with the rest of the airport. If you walk all the way from the end of Terminal A all the way up to the central terminal, you’ll find it has a certain feel. However, when you go to B, C, and D, it is not up to par, especially (the North Satellite).”
Over the next five years, the Port of Seattle estimates it will spend $1.9 billion between a myriad of major airport improvements are like the expansion and redesign of the North Satellite. Also on the horizon are reconstruction of the center runway, a possible addition of dining space in the central terminal, and a centralized baggage system that would ensure passengers could take their bags to any ticket counter, confident their bag would make it onto their flight. However, perhaps the crown jewel of these major projects is the new International Arrivals Facility, which broke ground in August.
Since 2004, the mid-day peak congestion in the current International Arrivals Facility has increased by 116 percent, with as many as 1,200 passengers arriving within a single hour on flights from across the world, all waiting to clear Customs. This often can lead airlines to hold passengers onboard aircraft after lengthy overseas flights while waiting for room at a gate or for Customs lines to thin out.
The new facility, which is slated for completion in 2019, will address these problems in a functional, albeit interesting, way. “We are going to have a real iconic bridge going from this new facility over into the existing satellite,” Lyttle said. “It is going to be 85 feet high, and it is going to span 900 feet across the taxi-way so the jumbo jets will actually be taxiing under it.”
As these short- and long-range projects come to fruition, travelers will likely experience some of the minor growing pains that come with progress. However, these upgrades, coupled with the experienced staff working behind the scenes, keeping passengers safe and fed, will have Sea-Tac sailing into less turbulent skies in the years to come.