Security checkpoints 101

Security checkpoints at the airport look so simple, but can be very frustrating for travelers. There’s more to it than you may think and, yes, there are reasons and rationale behind what you see. Here’s a quick guide to security checkpoints at Sea-Tac Airport that may help you during your next visit.

First off, we admit, sometimes lines are worse than we’d like to see. Part of it is a challenge with staffing, part of it is our small terminal footprint, and other parts are unpredictable variables. Our goal is to try and keep lines under 20-minute wait times. Our best advice is to plan for a checkpoint wait of 30 to 45 minutes in peak seasons like summer and holidays. It’s better to arrive early and be safe rather than sorry … and miss a flight!

TSA Staffing

Every Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer is working hard to keep passengers and our flights safe. The Port of Seattle works closely with the TSA to manage the checkpoint process to find ways to improve. Simply put, the TSA is responsible for the security process and the checkpoints, while the Port helps to manage the queues outside the checkpoints. Currently, the TSA is faced with staffing challenges to attract more staff and to train recent hires for more help at the checkpoints. The more staff they have, the more lanes they can open, and the more passengers we can get through the checkpoints.

K9s at Work

One of the other keys to checkpoints is the K9 team. These are the explosive detection dogs you see sniffing along the lines as you walk through the checkpoint before the document checkers. When one of the K9s is working a checkpoint, they expedite the screening and the lines move faster. That’s why you often see Port Pathfinders encouraging travelers to move into certain checkpoint lanes. The line may look long, but it does move faster when the K9 team is working. It may not make sense to you to move from one lane to another, but our Pathfinders work to balance the lines every day and they know their business. Keep an eye out for the people wearing the teal jackets — their jobs are to get you in the shortest line possible.

Staffing and K9 availability are two reasons why you may see certain checkpoints that are not open to general screening. It takes more staff just to open a checkpoint. However, if you take that same number of staff to another checkpoint, you can open more lanes and increase throughput — getting travelers through the scanners. So, it makes more sense to open more lanes at one checkpoint than use more staff to open fewer lanes at another. Again, it may be counter-intuitive at first glance, but it makes sense when you break it down.

Increase in Travelers

A final, and significant, factor is the tremendous growth in passengers at Sea-Tac. During peak periods our lines grow quickly outside the area just in front of the checkpoint, and it often looks worse than it is. Other airports have a large hall space that accommodates queues and allows travelers to see the checkpoint ahead to gauge their progress moving forward. Here at Sea-Tac, our facility is very narrow. So, the area in front of the checkpoint is not very large and when lines go beyond that area, we have to weave lines into breezeways, around escalators, and down the hall. The same number of people can be in the line, like at other airports, but the fact that you can’t see the checkpoint makes you think “this is going to take forever!”

Sea-Tac Airport is working hard to find more ways to keep lines manageable. We hope this helps you understand the factors that contribute to longer lines. And we wish you safe and speedy travels!

Use Sea-Tac’s digital resources to stay up to date!


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