Sullivan: Hey Sea-Tac Airport, where’s my plane?

Sep 28, 2023, 12:40 PM | Updated: 1:03 pm

s-e-a plane...

(Chris Sullivan/KIRO Newsradio)

(Chris Sullivan/KIRO Newsradio)

Have you ever used a bus to get to and from your plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac Airport)?

I have been flying a lot over the last five years, taking my son Tommy to football camps and eventually traveling with Holly to watch Tommy play games around the country. I had no idea that Sea-Tac Airport was bussing people to planes, and I’m the transportation reporter, which is pretty embarrassing.

We got our first taste of this last week when our boarding passes took us to Gate D26.

We took a right out of the main D Concourse. Within a few steps, we were looking at the parking garage and Holly said to me, “There’s no way our plane can fit here.”

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She was right. At the bottom of the walkway, we found D26. No plane. But there were two buses. Our plane was in the north cargo area, a few minutes ride from the terminal.

I immediately emailed Sea-Tac Airport’s Perry Cooper. “Where’s my plane?” I jokingly asked him. I met him at the D Annex this week to talk about it.

“You won’t see it as you’re making a reservation for the plane,” Cooper said. “That decision might be made that morning by the airlines as to where they’re going to go, but if you see a number here at (Sea-Tac Airport) that’s 20 or above, that tells you that’s a ground boarding position at any of our concourses.”

There are somewhat hidden gates around the airport to handle these ground boarding operations. They are in Terminals A, B and D and in the South Satellite.

It’s a common practice in Europe and across the United States. Two million passengers had to take buses to or from their planes at Sea-Tac Airport in 2019, maybe 2-4% of total passengers. So far this year about 220,000 passengers have done it.

With the explosive growth at the airport, Cooper said they had to get creative to find ways to accommodate it.

“We’ve squeezed in every passenger loading bridge gate that we could and every space that we can and then once we did that it’s like what’s our next option for what can we do,” he said.

The airport converted the old media parking lot into the D Annex.

“We’ve identified both on the north and south end of the airfield where those planes can now park in those peak periods and then take advantage of the ground boarding up opportunities,” Cooper said.

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These gates are primarily used when the airport is at peak capacity, and Cooper said they are a great alternative to sitting on an arriving plane, looking for a gate to park.

“Those will be flights that we wouldn’t be able to manage or handle,” he said. “You’d be sitting out on the taxi lane waiting for half an hour or an hour before you can get to an actual gate with a passenger loading bridge.”

I will tell you that using the buses does mess up the boarding process a bit. It’s not about when you get on the bus but where you sit. Say you’re in the first boarding group and you go through the gate and get on the bus. Be sure to get to the very front of that bus, or the people getting on it after you can actually board the plane before you.

And one more thing. If you find yourself in the D Concourse with a long layover or wait, the D Annex is super quiet, and it has plenty of charging spots. It’s a nice spot for a nap.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.


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