The TSA line stretching into the Seattle parking garage caused waits of more than hours

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Security lines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport stretched 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 on Twitter. “Please allow yourself plenty of time to get through security to get to 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 throughout the summer, particularly in Europe, where lines at some airports stretch for hours outside the terminal. Seattle’s expectations fell short of that level, but the airport acknowledged on Twitter 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 in the afternoon when they made it safely. They spent 45 minutes queuing in the parking lot, then got separated when staff separated the lines inside the terminal.

“It was extremely crowded, but it was like organized chaos, with lines snaking in every direction,” she said.

After finding each other after security, Drake and her husband arrived at 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 – arrived 2 hours early, checked our bags and only had small luggage, checked into our flight online ahead of time, had our ID cards and boarding pass ready to go.”

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Airport spokesman Perry Cooper said in an email that the lines 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 pandemic began, partly due to an influx of cruise passengers at the airport in the morning.

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

Cooper said the airport recorded longest waits at 90 minutes and opened additional screening lanes to help cope with the increase. Wait times were back to 10 to 20 minutes after noon, he said.

TSA spokeswoman 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. However, the increase in morning passengers created a backup, with about 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 equates to half of the day’s projected travel volume,” she said. “The Alaskan cruise season is still underway in Seattle and this has impacted the large number of departing travelers who were at the airport before noon.”

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

“That’s why 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 a.m. and 11 a.m.

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

“During certain times of the year and certain days of the week, the number of travelers to be screened exceeds the capacity of the security checkpoint,” she said. “By 12:30 yesterday afternoon, the number of departing passengers began to drop and things returned to normal.”

For prospective passengers, Cooper recommended “virtual queuing” through the airport’s Spot Saver program, a free service that allows travelers to reserve a 15-minute slot to go through security. It is available until 1pm at checkpoints 2, 3 and 5, although 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 flights are out.

“We are near pre-pandemic volumes and the challenges that come with these numbers,” he said, adding that the airport is holding meetings on Monday to discuss how to prevent similar wait times in the future.

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

Seattle has five security checkpoints and passengers can enter 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 waiting times are available in the airport app.

For those passengers looking for an alternative airport, Paine Field north of the city reopened for 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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