SEA Airport Passenger Numbers Tumble 61% in 2020

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The Alaska Airline logo on the fins with the blue skies and clouds in the background.
Alaska Airlines accounts for about half the flights at SEA. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines)

Like many industries in the past year, air travel has taken a huge hit and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) was no exception, seeing an unprecedented decline in passengers. The airport closed out 2020 with 20,061,507 passengers passing through its halls, a 61.29% decline from the record high year of 2019. The last time passenger numbers were that low goes back decades to 1993. Even during the Great Recession, passenger growth was only modestly affected, manifesting as a two-year hiccup whereas growth boomed during the 2010s ranging from 1.04% to 12.91% per year.

The Covid pandemic has been particularly acute for the leisure and business travel sectors as stay-at-home and teleworking orders in addition to state and international travel restrictions have been imposed. Travelers’ concern over transmission of Covid on airplanes has also added to the sectoral impacts.

Change in passenger growth and volumes at SEA since 2008.

During the pandemic, states like New York, Hawai’i, and Alaska have taken differing approaches to restricting air travel. Hawai’i essentially closed down all non-resident travel unless quarantining for 14 days until the fall when a mandatory advanced Covid test allowed freer travel. Alaska imposed a similar protocol last summer and New York mandated universal quarantines for passengers from higher Covid-positive states but also eventually relaxed this somewhat with advanced testing. Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee even recommended a 14-day quarantine for people returning from outside the state and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people arriving from countries where a more transmissible variant of Covid is known to be circulating.

Early on in 2020, the federal government also halted travel between the United States and Mainland China where the Covid virus had originated. Eventually, travel bans were expanded on short notice with Mexico, Canada, and Europe. Over time, some of these restrictions have been loosened, but general travel is still highly with quarantine requirements upon arrival by foreign governments. The Biden administration, however, began requiring travelers arriving from abroad to take an advanced test within 72 hours of departure starting today (January 26th) and issued a sweeping order yesterday (January 25th) denying non-citizens entry to the United States who have been recently been to countries where more transmissible Covid variants are widely circulating.

Overall, the airlines had a very difficult year with a nearly immediately collapse in travel demand and imposition of travel restrictions. This led many to greatly cut back flights beginning in March and April in North America, though international flights began to see some curtailment in February. Federal aid kept many airlines hanging on financially by a thread and forestalled layoffs, but eventually many airlines began furloughing and laying off staff in the fall as that aid dried up. Yet airlines have increasingly been adding back service—with global capacity reaching nearly 60% of pre-pandemic levels at the end of 2020—and presumably staffing as consumer confidence has risen.

Within the air travel market, demand for international service has dramatically fallen and with it many connections abroad. SEA reports that only 20 of 42 international services are still operating though a handful are poised to resume in the coming months. A few airlines have also indicated that new international services are planned this year.

DestinationOperating Airline(s)Notes
AmsterdamDelta
Bangalore See notesAmerican Airlines launches service on November 1st
Beijing–CapitalSee notesHainan Airlines has suspended service and Delta has transferred service to Beijing–Daxing
Beijing–DaxingSee notesDelta launches service on March 27th
CalgarySee notesAlaska Airlines, Air Canada, and Delta have suspended service
CancúnAlaska Airlines and Delta
DohaSee notesQatar Airways launches service on January 29th
Dubai–InternationalSee notesEmirates resumes service on February 1st
DublinSee notesAer Lingus has suspended service
EdmontonSee notesAlaska Airlines has suspended service
FrankfurtLufthansaCondor has suspended service
GuadalajaraVolaris
Hong KongSee notesCathay Pacific has suspended service
KelownaSee notesAlaska Airlines has suspended service
London–GatwickSee notesNorwegian has cancelled service
London–HeathrowBritish AirwaysVirgin Atlantic has suspended service, Delta resumes service on April 1st, and American Airlines launches service on March 27th
Los CabosAlaska Airlines and Delta
ManilaSee notesPhilippine Airlines planned but never launched service in 2020
Mexico CityAeroméxico
Montréal–TrudeauSee notesAir Canada planned but never launched service in 2020
MoreliaSee notesVolaris has suspended service
MunichSee notesCondor and Lufthansa planned but never launched service in 2020
Osaka–KansaiSee notesDelta has suspended service
Paris–Charles de GaulleSee notesAir France and Delta have suspended service
Puerto VallartaAlaska Airlines and Delta
Reykjavík–KeflavíkSee notesIceland Air has suspended service
Seoul–IncheonAsiana, Delta, and Korean Air
Shanghai–PudongDeltaHainan Airlines has suspended service and American Airlines launches service on March 27th
SingaporeSee notesSingapore Airlines has suspended service
Taipei–TaoyaunEVA
Tokyo–HanedaSee notesAll Nippon Airways and Delta have suspended service
Tokyo–NaritaSee notesJapanese Airlines resumes service on March 2nd
Toronto–PearsonSee notesAir Canada has suspended service
VancouverAir Canada, Alaska Airlines, and Delta
VictoriaSee notesAlaska Airlines has suspended service

Particularly notable in the table are new international services planned by American Airlines, including SEA’s first connection to India, to Bangalore (November 1st), London–Heathrow (March 27th), and Shanghai–Pudong (March 27th). The airline has consolidated some international services from Los Angeles as part of a reorganization effort for trans-Pacific routes and a partnership with Alaska Airlines. Later this year, Alaska Airlines will fully join the oneworld airline alliance, of which American Airlines is a founding and senior member. Thus the partnership will lead both airlines to align scheduled flights, connections, and perks. Other new intercontinental service planned includes oneworld member Qatar Airways’ Doha (January 29th) and Delta’s Beijing–Daxing (March 27th) routes, though service resumptions on many routes should be coming soon.

Aside from the announced international service resumptions and new launches, the list of domestic new routes is very short. Alaska Airlines plans to add service for Monterey (February 1st) and Cincinnati (May 20th), but other domestic airlines undoubtedly will begin making announcements soon as demand ramps back up and more service resumptions have begun.

The Port of Seattle plans to open a new International Arrivals Facility (IAF) this year capable of processing more international travelers and flights. The project has been beleaguered with environmental problems, cost overruns, and delays that have set its opening back nearly year. The IAF is now due to open in September even though estimates only months ago had suggested a March or April opening. The latest budget overrun has pushing the IAF budget to $986 million, ballooning significantly from the $608 million estimate in 2015–putting Sound Transit’s cost escalation woes in perspective.

When finished, the IAF will provide a secure corridor connection from the South Satellite to the main terminal via a walkway bridge over the tarmac and secure connections from Concourse A. These corridors will funnel passengers from gates to a new customs and baggage collection area just east of Concourse A in the main terminal. This will allow 20 gates instead of 12 to support international arrivals, double customs capacity to 2,600 passengers per hour, reduce customs processing timeframes, and increase international baggage carousels from four to seven. The improved processing timeframes means that connecting passengers will only need a 75-minute layover instead of the typical 90 minutes.

Of course, need for the new IAF is not exactly high at the moment given reduced passenger demand. This is also true of the North Satellite expansion underway.

In recent years, SEA had been experiencing some strain as passenger growth ballooned. This led to intermediate use of remote hardstands on the tarmac and a special annex at Concourse D to bus passengers back and forth to bridge the time between expansion of formal terminal and satellite gates. Long-range plans call for a new terminal, runway and airfield improvements, and expanded use of remote hardstands.

Red silhouettes of protesters in front of an airport with a plane taking off.
350 Seattle has made reducing the climate impact of air travel one of its missions. (Graphic by Stay Grounded)

This expansion was predicated on the high pace of passenger growth and assumed that unconstrained demand would reach 66 million passengers as soon as 2034 at a nearly fully maxed out SEA. Now some expansion measures might not seem quite as urgent given that industry analysts believe that it will take several years to recover to the highs of 2019. Moreover, climate groups like 350 Seattle have made the case against airport expansion on the grounds of reducing carbon emissions and local pollution.

Still, state and regional authorities continue to evaluate future aviation demand and possible new locations for major airports.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

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