Holiday travel through Sea-Tac: Dealing with scans, wifi, and the rest

Some helpful hints on scans, patdowns, free wifi, and useful apps. 

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Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Some helpful hints on scans, patdowns, free wifi, and useful apps. 

So you’ve gone and done it: booked flights in and out of Sea-Tac International Airport at Thanksgiving. Lucky you.

To ease the pain, we've assembled some information that we hope will add pleasure to your holiday travel — for example, free WiFi at the airport and on some flights.  We'll also look briefly at Sea-Tac's new full-body security scans: the big news here is that not everyone will be scanned. (Whew!)

Before going further, there's an urban myth that needs to be dispelled, at least at Sea-Tac: The day before Thanksgiving is not the busiest travel day of the year. According to airport spokesperson Perry Cooper, the busiest day generally occurs sometime in August during the height of summer travel: somewhere around 110,000 people. 

The day before Thanksgiving, Cooper notes, has less travel traffic than an average summer day; the bigger issue is the time of day people descend on the airport for their flights — usually the morning.  A worse day will be Sunday (Nov. 28), when everyone returns home. You've been warned.

As to our travel hint list:

1. Allow yourself a two-hour window at the airport. If you don't fly frequently, be good to yourself and familiarize yourself with the federal travel security guidelines. Try not to drive to the airport: not having to find a parking space may reduce your stress level as you begin your holiday trip.

2. The new full-body AIT scanners (Advanced Imaging Technology) will be in operation; the airport has acquired 14 of them.  While new waiting line patterns have been set up  — the plan being to further speed people going through security — unfamiliarity with the new system may cause some fliers to be uneasy with the new procedures.

Here's what happens, according to Cooper.

People in line will go through the usual metal detectors, then, at random, some will be selected for the full body scan. The scan itself takes about 30 seconds. To repeat, not everyone will be scanned.

If someone selected refuses to go through this second scan, then they must go through a "more aggressive patdown": in other words, a hands-on body search by a TSA agent.  The AIT scanners can detect even a small piece of paper in a pocket. A Port PR bulletin advises: "If items are detected during screening, it will slow the screening process and may mean passengers are given a follow-up pat down . . ."  Here’s the airport’s official security bulletin, as well as other airport holiday tips.

3. Once you're inside the terminal, you can enjoy free WiFi, courtesy of the airport. Have your computer look for the Sea-Tac free WiFi access point and log on; it's relatively painless. According to Cooper, the service is fast (up to 54 megabytes per second) and in its second year of being offered free to the public.  "It was one of the top customer suggestions, being the hi-tech area that we are," he noted. You'll still have to scramble for electric plugs in the airport's walls and floors to charge your equipment; however, the airport does have paid charging stations at the end of each concourse if you need them.

4. If you’re browsing for a free WiFi network at Sea-Tac or at any other airport, avoid the one called "Free Public WiFi." I can recall trying to link to this service in various airports, only to be disappointed and left wondering whether my equipment was at fault.  Relax. An NPR (National Public Radio) story puts the blame on Windows software that automatically creates an ad hoc network when the software can't find the previous WiFi network it was connected to.  

The NPR story seems to indicate the issue only occurs when you're using an un-updated version of Windows XP.  I dunno.  Recently I was in Baltimore’s BWI airport and experienced the same issue . . . on a Windows 7 laptop computer.

5) Let’s say you’re at an airport other than Sea-Tac. You've located an accessible WiFi network, either free or paid, and you link to it and find it simply performs horrifically sloooowwww.  You may be able to bring up a browser or check email,  but beyond that . . . nada.  Here's something you can do to at least anticipate whether your WiFi browsing will be good or bad: once you're on line, perform an Internet speed test.  For any laptop or an Android phone, use your browser to locate  For iPhones/iPads, download the Speed Test app from the iTunes store.

If your test shows you’re receiving 1 megabyte per second (mbs) or less, don't expect much luck with smooth streaming video.

6) This Thanksgiving holiday season, at least four airlines will be offering free in-flight WiFi.  AirTran, Delta, and Virgin America Three will be available until Jan. 2, 1011  through the courtesy of Google Chrome: Google's Internet browser.  Alaska Airlines will also offer free WiFi service through its Gogo Inflight Internet; their free service ends Dec. 9.

7) And if you haven't flown recently, do check your individual airline regarding its policies on the number of bags you can travel with free and/or take on board.

Then there's the food situation. Airline dining is not exactly haute cuisine these days.  You may be embarrassed toting on board that odiferous Quizno’s torpedo sandwich or the rigatoni you baked the night before, but it will be so much tastier than the $6 "Western Picnic Deluxe" airline meal with its dried chips, salsa in a squeezable tube, processed cheese, hard salami stick and the inevitable Korn Nutz Surprise.

Or pick up some food from the many airport food vendors whose charter with Sea-Tac requires them to charge street prices (plus 5 percent).

Bon appetite, Happy Thanksgiving and safe passage wherever you’re bound.  See you on the scanner! (Just kidding.)


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