A First Glimpse at the New International Arrivals Facility (IAF) At SEA

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International Arrivals Facility Reveal Event

The Port of Seattle gave a first glimpse of the new International Arrivals Facility (IAF) at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. This facility will open later in the spring of 2022. Major construction at the IAF is now complete. Final touches are still being made. I was able to get a first glimpse of the new facility together with other media, partners, and stakeholders in this new facility. It’s really a gorgeous facility, unfortunately, CBP doesn’t allow photo or video taking in the immigration area once you will arrive here. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held with Jay Inslee (Governor Washington State), Lance Lyttle (Port of Seattle Managing Director), as well as airline and port partners.

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

The International Arrivals Facility is made up of the pedestrian walkway, secure/international corridor, and Grand Hall. Let’s check them out.

International Arrivals Facility Elements
(Courtesy of the Port of Seattle)

Secure/International Corridor

This part separates arriving passengers from the rest of the airport facilities until they clear customs and immigration. As you exit the plane, you won’t walk straight into the terminal, you follow this corridor to get to the Grand Hall where customs and immigration are situated.

Thanks to improvements and adding swing gates at Concourse A, the airport has now eight additional gates that can be used for international arrivals. This brings the number of gates that can handle international flights up to 20 instead of just the 12 gates at the South Satellite These added gates are part of Concourse A and are most of the time used for domestic flights. Thanks to this upgrade, these eight additional gates can now also welcome international flights and guide the passengers to the Grand Hall, where they will undergo customs and immigration inspection before entering the United States.

Arriving at one of these eight gates has one downside, you won’t be using the Pedestrian Walkway. You get a glimpse of it while walking along the secure corridor and can even watch planes taxing underneath it.

Pedestrian Walkway

One of the new highlights of the IAF is the pedestrian walkway. This walkway spans over an active taxi lane and is also the world’s longest walkway over an active taxi lane. The walkway is 780 ft long and has a vertical clearance of 85 ft. Pretty impressive numbers. 

Pedestrian Walkway with Qatar Airways Boeing 777 passing underneath it as it arrives from Doha

International flights will arrive mainly at the South Satellite and from their use an escalator or elevator to get up to the pedestrian walkway. The walkway will offer iconic views of the airport, Mount Rainier, and Downtown Seattle. Of course depending on weather conditions. On the other side you will take another escalator or elevator down to get to the Grand Hall.

The 300-foot long centerpiece of the pedestrian walkway was lifted in place in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit. Check out my other post if you want to know more about the pedestrian walkway and its construction.

Grand Hall

Before you enter the 450,000-square-foot Grand Hall you will walk through a passageway with beautiful wood decor and end up on a mezzanine floor of the Grand Hall. It’s a wide-open space and gives you a great view of the Grand Hall with the baggage claim and customs and immigration checkpoint stations. From here you will take one of three escalators down to the main floor of the Grand Hall. Global Entry Kiosks are set up on the mezzanine level, stop there before you head downstairs.

Once you are at the main level, you will collect your bags first before going through immigration. This is different from most airports at which you clear immigration first and then pick up your bags and head through customs. I wonder how this will play out for travelers with many bags like a family. Now you have to get all your belongings with you in the immigration line before you can continue on. Hopefully, they offer free-of-charge luggage carts as I am sure not everyone has Dollar bills ready to grab a luggage cart or their credit card might not work. SEA will be the first major airport in the U.S. to implement bags first for arriving international travelers. I am eager to test this new approach and see how it compares to the traditional way of clearing immigration first before proceeding to customs and finishing the arrivals process.

Facial recognition technology will also be a huge part of the international arrivals process. The U.S. Congress mandates that CBP is using biometrics for all arriving and departing international travelers. CBP’s favorite tool for biometrics is facial recognition. The Port of Seattle itself took an aggressive stance against biometrics, including facial recognition and outright banned it at the airport where legally possible. As mentioned, CBP is required by federal law to use such technologies and it will be part of the international arrivals process but not at the rest of the airport. By the way, U.S. citizens can opt-out from facial recognition. Learn more here.

CBP Customs and Immigration Checkpoints

With the new IAF, the airport has now seven baggage claim carousels instead of four before. Large floor-to-ceiling windows bring in a lot of natural light. Watch the Sound Transit trains zip right next to the building while waiting for your bags or standing in line. The Sound Transit train is another way of getting from the airport to Seattle and other cities in the area. You might want to look into this as a budget alternative to ride shares and rental cars. Especially if you are just visiting Seattle itself.

Connecting Flights or Exiting in Seattle

Depending on if Seattle is your final destination or you have a connecting flight, the new IAF makes it easy and faster than ever to get to your destination.  The capacity of passengers the airport can handle got more than doubled. The airport will now be able to process 2,600 passengers per hour thanks to the new IAF. The old immigration process, which meant to take the underground people mover, was only capable of processing 1,200 passengers per hour. 

Connecting Flights

Travelers connecting to another flight in Seattle have an easy way to get to their connecting flight. Once they clear customs and immigration, they will follow the signage and stay on the same level as immigration. A walkway will guide them to airline counters for bag re-check and after that to a dedicated TSA security checkpoint. With these improvements and the use of the latest technology, the airport aims to bring down the minimum passenger connection time from 90 minutes to 75 minutes. Passengers will have now a more relaxed connection experience and can enjoy the restaurants and shops while waiting for their connecting flight to board.

Exit to Seattle or Connecting Flights walkway

Exiting in Seattle

After travelers clear customs and immigration, they will follow clear visible signage as well to exit into Seattle. Passengers will take a long ramp down to the arrivals level of the airport. From here they can get picked up curbside, walk to their car at the attached airport parking garage or take shuttles to hotels, off-site parking lots, and to the rental car center.

Welcome to Seattle – Exiting the IAF

Opening of the International Arrivals Facility

The IAF is slated to open in the spring of 2022. The port will start with a soft opening by only getting a few flights through the new facility. These flights will be international flights arriving at one of the eight additional gates of Concourse A. The Port of Seattle and other involved parties like Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will assess how the new facility works and what needs to be changed or fine-tuned for the optimum experience. 

International Arrivals Facility (IAF)

The pedestrian walkway is set to open up to passengers a few weeks after the soft opening as final preparations are still underway. 

With the International Arrivals Facility, the Port undertook its most complex capital project in the 71-year history of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

By the way, Delta Air Lines, Seattle’s largest global airline, will be the largest future user of the International Arrivals Facility.

Art and the International Arrivals Facility

The Grand Hall is an art piece by itself. When the architects designed the roof, they envisioned the wings of an aircraft tilting to come in for a landing. This approach will guide travelers more intuitively where they need to go without the need for signage at every corner. As the roof gradually lowers, it will guide you to the escalators and baggage claim. On the other side, the high sides of the roof allow for large windows bringing in natural light that helps reinforce circadian rhythms.

Besides that the building itself, there are numerous art installations throughout the new facility.

  • Materials feature the blues of the sea and sky, and the greens and organic textures of the mountains and forests
  • More than 100,000 square feet of terrazzo floor sourced from local stone forms a rock pattern that evokes the colors and textures of a rocky Pacific Ocean beach
  • Wood accents bring warmth and nature into the space
  • A courtyard with plants and trees will give a flash of our namesake Emerald green as you exit to the rest of the airport
  • Chalchiutlicue, a five-piece sculpture by artist Marela Zacarías, over the bag claim carousels were inspired by the colors of the waterways and sunsets in the San Juan Islands
  • Magnetic Anomaly, three kinetic artworks created by Ned Kahn, consists of spinning suspended metallic mobiles that are inspired by the wind and ever-changing Pacific Northwest weather
  • Indigenous art is installed throughout the IAF with works by six Native American artists, including renowned glass artist Preston Singletary and the interdisciplinary artist Marie Watt

Event Gallery

Conclusion

This new facility is amazing, state of the art, and beautiful. There is only one downside. It’s for arrivals only. It’s not a new “International Terminal” for departing and arriving travelers. This facility will only handle arriving passengers, hence the name International Arrivals Facility. I am a big plane spotter and wish I could hang out at the pedestrian walkway and take photos of planes taxiing underneath it or get great views of Mount Rainier. Even when you arrive, you probably won’t hang out here for long. You just got off a long international flight, you are tired and just want to go through immigration. The longer you wait, the longer the line could get. More flights might arrive. Usually, I always try to rush to the immigration checkpoint to not get stuck in long lines. 

Overall this will be an amazing new way to arrive in Seattle. I am sure many travelers will be unaware of the pedestrian walkway and will have a jaw-dropping experience while traversing this bridge over the taxi lane. It’s magnificent what the Port of Seattle erected here as a new welcome sign to the Pacific Northwest.

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