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Sea-Tac Airport prepares for holiday travel as COVID-19 cases back on the rise

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and its concessionaires are putting coronavirus precautions in place with an expected surge of travelers during the holidays.

SEATTLE — The growing wave of new cases of COVID-19 is coinciding with more people flying home for the holidays at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The airport is expecting departures on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to reach 29,000, and 29,500 on the following Sunday.

If you add arriving passengers, more than 60,000 passengers are expected to go through the airport.

While that's a bigger crowd than typical days in recent months, that's still fewer people than in Thanksgiving of 2019, when well over 100,000 travelers came through Sea-Tac.

Sea-Tac Airport and the airlines that use it have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the worst day of the pandemic, departures dropped to just 2,500.

Airport officials now say a more typical daily departure number is between 18,000 and 20,000 passengers.

That’s still off about 65% to 70% from 2019, which by all standards was a blockbuster year, which has meant job cuts at the airport for vendors.

“We furloughed our whole staff when we closed in March and April, and are back around 70% of the now,” said David Fukuhara, who operates two Caffé D’arte restaurants in Seattle.

The impact of the pandemic’s regrowth is of concern for an aviation industry that’s seeing a slow-motion turnaround.

This holiday traveling season, the airport and its concessionaires have been preparing for travel amid COVID.

For example, Caffe D’arte showed KING 5 everything that employees go through. Temperature and wellness checks when they come on duty. They wash their hands and then check those washed hands under a special ultraviolet light that can detect places on the hands that are not clean.

“There’s a large program to keep travelers and employees safe,” said Fukuhara. “And we’re right there in the middle. We’re the ones that travelers interact with.”

Masks are required anywhere inside the airport. If you don’t have one, the airport has staff members with carts that can provide one for free.

The airport has 8,000 floor-stickers and signs to remind people to stay six feet apart.

One area of concern is the trains that connect the main terminal with the north and south satellites.

In normal times, the trains are packed. Today, new TV monitors in the stations encourage people to wait for a later train to maintain social distancing and it also counts down how many minutes they’ll have to wait.

We noticed the longest wait times posted are about three minutes, but most trains we observed seemed to come sooner than that.

Another area of worry for airport managers is the lines at TSA checkpoints may appear longer than they really are.

With six feet of social distancing, airport officials say, they lose about 75% of space that people used to be able to stand in.

“The lines may look longer, but don’t worry about it, you’ll get through just as fast,” said Sea-Tac Managing Director Lance Lyttle.