Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Testing, testing: Does this airport terminal work?

Earlier this month, more than 200 ‘fake’ passengers showed up at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  

They weren’t working a scam. And they weren’t there to protest anything.

Instead, they were there volunteering to help Sea-Tac airport test the operational readiness of a satellite terminal undergoing its first major expansion and modernization in 45 years.

Happy to be spending their Saturday morning at the airport, 3-year-old Ari Weinstein and his 6-year-old brother, Micah, were toting tiny rolling suitcases for the day’s pretend flight.

“We thought it would be fun to check-out the new airport addition and see how easy it was for kids,” said the boys’ dad, Ben Weinstein, a Boeing engineer, “I’m also curious to see how the latest airport design works with new airplanes.”

72-year-old Vicki Lockwood and her 93-year-old mom, Ruby Griffin, had signed up to be testers too.   

“I wanted to see what was happening so I can tell my friends at the senior center what it’s all about,” said Griffin.

Travel agent Rufo Calvo volunteered as a tester so he could get an early look at the new terminal area and tell his clients what to expect. And Toffee Coleman, who travels four or times a month for her job in marketing and sales, was curious to find out what the expanded terminal would offer for business travelers. “I hope it measures up to the central terminal in terms of ease of use, amenities and accessibility,” she said.  

Opening day for the first phase of Sea-Tac airport’s expanded North Satellite was less than two weeks away. The bathrooms, drinking fountains, food concessions and visual paging systems weren’t quite ready, but this “passenger-flow simulation” was testing the journey between the main terminal and the expanded satellite as well as the process of boarding and deplaning a flight at one of the new gates.

“We’ll also be asking the volunteers if the temperature in the terminal is comfortable and if they can hear the overhead announcements clearly,” said Charles Goedken, Sea-Tac’s senior manager for Operational Readiness, Activation and Transition, or ORAT, which is the system of best practices many airports use from the design stage forward to make sure a new airport or new terminal is ready for opening day.

“What you try to do is to start working early with the planning and construction team so that when the airport or the facility is open everyone knows what to do,” said Lance Lyttle, the managing director of Sea-Tac Airport, “You don’t want to find issues on opening day; you want to find them before opening day.”

Lyttle was with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport when each opened new terminals and says no airport wants to relive the opening glitches experienced by Heathrow and Denver airports.  

In the early 1990s, the high-profile failure of an expensive, computerized baggage-handling system delayed the opening of Denver International Airport by 16 months and increased the construction budget by millions of dollars.

After that, “DEN returned to manual baggage systems,” said Denver International Airport spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

In 2008, the grand opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport’s turned to mush thanks to a cascading series of staffing and baggage-handling problems that forced British Airways to suspend luggage check-in and cancel more than 200 flights over four days. Thousands of passengers missed their flights and more than 15,000 pieces of luggage were delayed.  

“If you have a failed opening of a facility it lives as part of your reputation forever,” said Sea-Tac Airport’s Lance Lyttle, “People use it as an example. And not in a good way. Heathrow underestimated the value of ORAT. But the next time [the opening of Terminal 2, in 2014] they went overboard and got it right.”

New terminals and terminal upgrade projects are underway at all three New York-area airports and at airports in Istanbul, Singapore, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and many other cities and testing is key to those projects.

At Turkey’s new international in Istanbul, which is expected to be fully open by March, 2019, the ORAT (Operational Readiness, Activation and Transition) team reported for duty more than 20 months ago.

“More than 60,000 airport community staff have gone thru a familiarization and training program,” said Stephan Schwolgin, Istanbul Airport’s ORAT project manager, “More than 175 trials have been conducted with nearly 10.000 fake passengers and 7 real aircraft.”

The experience of unbiased, fake passengers is valuable for gathering feedback on everything from wayfinding and flight information display systems to walking distances and the availability of power sockets, said Schwolgin.

On February 6 Finland’s Helsinki Airport will hold a test day with more than 200 fake passengers at the airport’s new central plaza, called Aukio, which will serve both departing and arriving passengers.

“We will test the functionality of services and passenger paths, especially the state-of-the-art security check with a full body scanner,” said Joni Sundelin, Helsinki Airport’s executive director, “The trial day includes testing not only of the passenger flow, signage, restaurants and bathroom facilities, but also services and processes for passengers with reduced mobility.”

During a previous test of a different part of the airport, “There was a funny issue with the toilets,” said Sundelin. “Test passengers were wearing brightly colored vest and when the testers entered the bathroom all the automatic water taps with motion sensors activated. Apparently the sensors were so sensitive they recognized the bright yellow and orange vests moving even from the distance,” said Sundelin.

When testing with fake passengers for San Francisco International Airport’s Boarding Area E, “We learned there was some signage too small or not universal enough,” said Kristi Hogan, Associate Vice President, Transportation for engineering firm AECOM, “No one could find the yoga room.”

For a passenger-flow simulation scheduled for June 6 in advance of the July opening of 9 new gates at SFO’s Terminal 1, volunteers of all ages and abilities will be asked to test the terminal signage; flush toilets and use faucets and automatic hand dryers in the bathrooms; locate flight display boards; test the Wi-Fi and make phone calls on their cell phones.

“We’ll have some fake passengers arrive on the BART train and have others get dropped off at the curb,” said Hogan, “And we’ll also ask them to become arriving passengers and make their way to baggage claim, to taxis or to BART.

Trials and simulations will also soon be underway in advance of the scheduled May 15 opening of the new terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY)

“These simulations will test everything from parking, ticket counters, security checkpoints, flight monitors, restrooms, gates, concessions, emergency exits, lost and found, and ground transportation,” said MSY spokeswoman Erin Burns.

Emergency response systems, baggage systems, PA systems and everything on the facility maintenance side will also get tested, said Burns, including simultaneous toilet flushes & sink use, seating, power access and severe weather operations.

Employees and fake passengers will performed many of these tests but, with perhaps the Denver and Heathrow terminal debacles in mind, Burns said data on how MSY passengers might experience the facility will also be gathered during sneak peaks events held in the terminal right up to the official opening.

PIT, SEA and airport vendors offer food, resources to help to unpaid TSA, FAA workers.

PIT, SEA airports offer food, resource assistance to unpaid TSA workers

The government shutdown continues and, at airports around the country, TSA and FAA workers are facing their first scheduled pay period with no paycheck.

Yet, they’re expected to keep on working.

To help out those employees and to show support, the Allegheny County Airport Authority is providing free lunches today to the more than 200 TSA and FAA employees who work at Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport.

Bagged lunches will be provided by Bruegger’s Bagels and will include a sandwich, chips, cookie and drink on all shifts for TSA agents and FAA air traffic controllers.

“We have not seen an impact on operations or lines here in Pittsburgh due to the shutdown, ” said Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis, “We are so thankful to the federal employees including TSA, FAA, Customs and others for continuing to work without pay at this critical time.”

The Airport Authority plans to continue providing the lunches on Fridays to federal workers until the government is reopen.

Help in Seattle

On the other side of the country, The Port of Seattle has put together a resource fair at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The goal: to help federal safety and security employees who are continuing to work without pay during the current federal government partial shutdown.

The fair will run Friday, January 11 and Monday, January 14 and include representatives from providers of short-term loans, employee assistance programs and others to make it easier for federal employees to learn about the services that are available and quickly get help.

If the government shutdown continues, the resource fair may be repeated.

“The federal workers who serve critical functions at the Port—as air traffic controllers, security checkpoint screeners, safety inspectors and other vital roles—deserve to be paid in a timely fashion for the work they do,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins, “Until our federal government ends this unnecessary and harmful shutdown, we will do everything in our power to help workers in our facilities find the resources they need to pay their bills.”

More help

Nationwide, Hudson Group, which operates shops in many airports, is offering a 20% discount off food, beverages and many store products to all TSA and customs employees starting today and continuing until the shutdown is resolved.

OTG, which operates retail outlets and restaurants in 10 airports, will offer TSA employees a 50 percent discount on food and beverage beginning Saturday, January 12 and continuing through the duration of the government shutdown.

SEA & DFW airports wager over NFL Wild Card game

There’s an NFL Wild Card game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday evening and there’s some good natured smack talk and wagering going on between the SEA and DFW airports, and between restaurants in each airport.

*Disclaimer: I live in Seattle, so you probably know who I hope wins…

Trend? Another airport invites non-travelers past security

They do it at Pittsburgh International Airport. Now Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has a program to allow non-travelers past the security checkpoint to say goodbye to loved ones at the gate, have a meal or shop.

The new SEA Visitor Pass is a pilot program will run through December 14. But it if works out, non-ticketed airport visitors will be allowed to enter the post-security side of the terminal year-round.

Here’s how the program works:

  •  Entrance to the post-security side of the terminal is allowed from Tuesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m and will be limited to 50 visitors each day.
  • Applications will be taken Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.  Non-ticketed visitors will need to  apply online before 1:30 p.m. the day before they want to enter.
  • TSA will review your application and notify you by midnight the day before if you are approved for entry.
  • Approved visitors will go through the standard security checkpoints, so all security requirements for any traveler will be in place for visitors as well.
  • Meeting travelers at their gate will be restricted to domestic arrivals.

“It’s been 17 years since anyone without a ticket has been able to enjoy areas of the airport beyond security,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins, “Yet some of the airport’s best features are there. Great restaurants, local musicians performing in the concourses, and some of the best views of the planes coming and going against the backdrop of Mt. Rainier and the Olympics.”

SEA is my home base airport and I can confirm that there are plenty of great reasons to want to hang out at this airport even if you’re not flying.  In addition to the art collection that includes work by Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson and others, SEA has a robust live music program and some great shops and restaurants. There’s also the newly-launched series of holiday celebrations planned throughout the year, including events to honor Native Heritage Month (November) and of course the upcoming December Season of Light.

Fresh art and music at SFO, STL and SEA airports

Increasingly, airports are great places to see cool art and listen to great music.

Here are the latest offerings from San Francisco International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Murmur No. 23 2006 Richard Barnes (b. 1953)

Murmur No. 23, by Richard Barnes. Courtey SFO Museum

The SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport is hosting an exhibition of photographs by Richard Barnes of starlings over Rome.

Barnes photographs the starlings during their winter migration from northern Europe to the Rome countryside. He waits till dusk, when the birds form dense cloud-like formations known as murmurations, and in his “Murmur” series Barnes has captured the starlings forming impressive aerial shapes.

Look for the Murmur exhibit pre-security on the Departures Level in Terminal 3 of the San Francisco International Airport.

 

Murmur No. 21 , by Richard Barnes. Courtesy SFO Museum

 

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has kicked off a new program, Celebrations at Sea-Tac, to honor holidays, traditions and cultures from the United Stations and global community.

The celebrations begin November with 1 for Dia de los Muertos, or the “Day of the Dead,” a Mexican holiday honoring and remembering loved ones.

Activities will include art installations, candy skull face painting and arts and crafts for children, food and beverage sampling and live performances.

And at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, the Art & Culture Program is hosting an exhibition by St. Louis artist Jeremy Rabus.

Titled “Livery,” the exhibition includes paintings inspired by the livery and components of commercial airlines. Look for this exhibit near the A Concourse entrance in Terminal 1.

Loran Naviagation by Jeremy Rabus; courtesy STL Airport