The Ins and Outs of Seattle Tacoma International Airport Ground Boarding Operations

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Before discussing some of the peculiarities of flights to and from Seattle/Tacoma International Airport (SEA) let’s first take a look at the history of the airport. After the US military took control of Boeing Field during World War II, the Port of Seattle and the city of Tacoma partnered to build a civilian airport.


Today, SEA is the primary commercial airport serving the Seattle metropolitan area. It is the busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest, and a major Alaska Airlines hub and international gateway for Delta Air Lines. In 2021, SEA served over 36 million passengers, making it the 10th busiest airport in the United States.

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Seattle-Tacoma Airport


SEA does not have enough air bridges

Due to construction projects at SEA, many passengers have to get to and from the plane by bus. While this may be acceptable at underserved airports, one would think that SEA has enough air bridges to handle the traffic. Unfortunately, it is not the case; buses must still carry passengers to and from certain flights.

In defending why it still needs to transport passengers to and from the plane by bus, SEA claims that ground boarding operations are carried out every day around the world. SEA says more than 300 airports in 100 countries transport passengers to and from the plane by bus. And, if you’ve traveled outside the United States, you’ve probably experienced it. In the United States, meanwhile, this form of travel to and from the plane is less common, with only 21 airports using some form of ground transportation.

SeaTac Hall D 001

SEA Hall D. Photo: SEA

SEA struggles to keep up with growth

SEA says that due to its growth, it was unable to keep up with the number of flights arriving at the airport and had no choice but to use ground transportation until that terminals be expanded and that more air bridges be added. The airport also indicates that the terminals would be overcrowded without Land transportation to and from planes, and passengers would have to wait much longer to disembark and board flights. This would be particularly problematic during peak times of the day.

Airports charge airlines for usage air bridges and the convenience of parking next to the terminal. Some low cost carriers like Border airlines don’t want to pay extra and are happy enough to use the buses. When Norwegian flew to Seattle, they never paid a gate, preferring to park far from the terminal and use the buses.

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Meanwhile, when you look at the overall picture and compare it to other airports around the world, SEA only carries around 1% of bus passengers to and from the plane. This figure is quite small considering that two of the busiest airports in Europe, London Heathrow (LHR) and Frankfurt Airport (FRA), carry 6% of bus passengers.

SEA also claims that some passengers would prefer to board the plane by bus (including myself). Rather than jumping from tube to tube, the trip to the plane can be fun. Using a bus allows you to see what is happening at the airport and see other aircraft up close.

The journey to and from the terminal to the planes takes about six to eight minutes. If you are arriving or departing on a large widebody, the time may be faster than an airlift as passengers board and disembark from the front and rear of the aircraft.

SEA new international arrivals terminal

Earlier this year, SEA announced the construction of a new international arrivals terminal and the world’s longest flyway on an active aircraft taxiway. Due to the height of the bridge, any aircraft on the taxiway will have enough space to pass under it safely.

How about bus transport to and from the plane to the terminal? Please tell us your thoughts in the comments.

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