What’s new at Seattle-Tacoma airport? And when will travel return? Industry leaders project optimism amid uncertainty

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By Seattle Times features reporter At times during 2020, said Lance Lyttle, director of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, “you could literally roll a bowling ball through the terminal and not hit anybody — it was that bad.” But during a Wednesday panel about the future of travel, Lyttle, along with other […]

At times during 2020, said Lance Lyttle, director of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, “you could literally roll a bowling ball through the terminal and not hit anybody — it was that bad.”

But during a Wednesday panel about the future of travel, Lyttle, along with other Seattle travel industry professionals and public officials, projected a general sense of optimism, while admitting that the full return of travel would depend on external factors — border controls, vaccination rates, consumer confidence — over which they have no control.

Lyttle noted two infrastructural development at Seattle-Tacoma Airport that he said will brighten the airport’s future: the completion of its North Satellite (a 200,000 square-foot facility with new restrooms, concessions, mother’s nursing suite and stage for performing arts) and its new international arrivals facility, an estimated $968 million project that began construction in 2017 and will be five times larger than the existing facility.

Kazue Ishiwata, the airport’s senior manager of air service development, also emphasized Sea-Tac’s new direct flights from Seattle to Doha, Qatar, and London-Heathrow airport.

Why Doha? “For airlines like Qatar Airways and Emirates, the key to their success is connecting traffic,” Ishiwata said. Passengers on an initial flight from Seattle to Doha in January were headed to 15 different countries and spoke 20 languages, Ishiwata said.

Ian Jeffries, a senior vice president at the communications firm Edelman, echoed the familiar refrain about “pent-up demand” for travel among Americans and said two of Edelman’s clients (the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau and Viking Cruises) were reporting extremely optimistic outlooks. Trips to Maui, he said, were at 2019 levels while Viking has reported such strong demand for cruises in 2022-2023, they’ve begun booking 2024 sailings.

Ishiwata also said trips to sunny beaches seemed to be at the top of passengers’ lists. In 2019, she explained, the top five international destinations from Sea-Tac were London, Tokyo, Seoul, Toronto and Los Cabos, Mexico. In 2020, four of the top five were Mexican destinations (Guadalajara, Los Cabos, Cancún and Puerto Vallarta) with Seoul coming in at No. 5.

As for when international travel will return to 2019 levels, Lyttle, of Sea-Tac, said: “We just don’t know yet. It depends on border controls and how quickly people get vaccinated.”

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