Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Courtesy of Port of Seattle)

Happy 75th birthday to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)! From humble beginnings during World War II to becoming one of the busiest airports in the United States, SEA has continually evolved to meet the needs of travelers and the aviation industry. Let's take a journey through the decades to see how SEA has transformed over the years, playing many crucial roles as an essential lifeline and a vibrant community connector for the Puget Sound region.

A grand beginning

SEA Airport was dedicated July 9, 1949. Originally designed to accommodate just 900 passengers per hour, the new four-story 234,000-square-foot office and terminal complex replaced makeshift World War II-era buildings that had served SEA Airport's very first airline passengers.

The striking white building, with its towering control structure and spacious, glass-lined passenger concourses, was celebrated as the most advanced airport terminal in America at the time. The region's airlines — at the time just four of them — transitioned operations from Boeing Field to SEA, which welcomed 1,500 passengers daily onto 60 scheduled flights. Within the terminal, SEA offered an impressive array of amenities, including upscale dining, a barbershop, a gift shop and a lounge featuring live performances by a jazz pianist and singer.

Travelers pass through the SEA Airport in 1949

The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport lobby in 1949. (Courtesy of Port of Seattle)

The SEA Airport dedication attracted over 30,000 onlookers, including four-year-old Kathy Mills Rozzini and her family. Aviation runs in her blood: Rozzini’s grandfather Steve Mills took his Seattle-based airline, Northern Air Service, to Alaska in 1932 during the Great Depression. He renamed the airline Star Air Service. Eleven years later, it would be renamed a final time to Alaska Airlines.

Rozzini recalled the dedication as “a very hot day,” with airport staff distributing bottles of Coca-Cola — “a really big treat in those days.”

The Rozzini family
From left to right: Rozzini’s father Steve Mills, Rozzini’s older and younger sister, her mother Roberta Mills, Kathy Mills Rozzini and her Aunt Sally Mills. (Courtesy of Port of Seattle)

A pop culture icon

SEA has grown from serving just half a million passengers in 1949 to over 50 million today, representing the decades of ingenuity and building innovation poured into the community hub. But even in its smaller incarnation, SEA had some serious cameos in popular culture, alongside famous visitors.

As the place where Tom Hanks first spots Meg Ryan, Gate N7 plays a starring role in 1993’s classic romantic comedy “Sleepless in Seattle.” Elvis Presley also filmed scenes at the airport during the 1962 World’s Fair. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali has also stopped by.

Allen Stone

Allen Stone smiles with other travelers at the SEA Airport. (Courtesy of Port of Seattle)

So have more contemporary stars like Allen Stone, who has seen his share of airports and hotels as a working musician, and sees much of Seattle’s local culture in the airport itself. “SEA’s decision for the first impression that people get when they come to Seattle to be local businesses like Sub Pop Records, Caffe Vita, Beecher's Handmade Cheese, and also to promote the artistic ventures of the city, I think is such a wonderful way to introduce people to what the city has to offer,” he said. “They are putting that first foot forward that this is a place of community and we really uphold our businesses and our local artists."

A safe haven for refugees

Airports are often the first point of contact for refugees entering a new country, and SEA is no exception. In fact, the airport has played a crucial role as a sanctuary and resource for the Puget Sound region’s growing community of immigrants and refugees.  Amid Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, SEA has welcomed numerous refugees and partnered with local nonprofits to establish a private welcome area where refugees could connect with resettlement organizations and pick up food and supplies provided by airport dining and retail tenants. At SEA, refugees can also meet resettlement case workers directly at their arrival gates, without having to go through baggage claim first.  Signs throughout the airport in Dari, Pashto, and English, displayed throughout the airport guide the way.

These wayfinding and outreach services are personal for Port of Seattle Commissioner Sam Cho, the son of immigrants. “I know from the experience of my own immigrant parents, the challenges of moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language or know the system,” he said. “That’s why it’s crucial that we provide a welcoming environment and the necessary services to refugees settling in their new home. “This country and our region has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. We are working around the clock to continue that tradition.”

In alignment with these values, the Port of Seattle has adopted a “Welcoming Port Policy” and partnered with organizations like One America and World Relief to expand resources and programs for refugees in response to executive orders restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries. Through partnerships with local nonprofits, the Port assists refugees in accessing housing, English language classes, job searching and navigating medical care.

This tradition of support traces back to the end of the Vietnam War, when SEA and the broader Seattle community opened their arms to Vietnamese refugees. Washington state, under the leadership of Governor Dan Evans, became a sign of hope for thousands. The airport's role in these efforts highlights its commitment to being a community connector and humanitarian hub.

A hub for arts and culture

When you’re navigating SEA, you’ll do it with a soundtrack. That’s thanks to the airport’s live music program. Ten years in, the initiative brings local performers  to the forefront, offering travelers a taste of the region's vibrant music scene. The resulting experiences are memorable for musicians and travelers alike.

"Travelers walk over to them and spill their guts on how much they enjoyed them, how they made them laugh and cry,” said Ed Beeson, Founder and CEO of Gigs4U, which partners with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to present the airport music program.

A little boy and his mother watch a woman play the cello at the SeaTac Airport
Cellist and composer Gretchen Yanover plays for a woman and young boy at the SEA Airport (Courtesy of Port of Seattle)

Cellist and composer Gretchen Yanover knows this firsthand.  During one of her performances,  a young couple and their three-year-old son stopped to watch. The child was captivated and so reluctant to leave that the family bought one of Yanover’s records before catching their flight. Years later, Yanover received an email from the couple with a photo of their now six-year-old son playing the cello. He was still listening to her CD almost daily, they said.

Performances like these, plus art installations throughout the airport, lend a pleasant ambience to the stress of travel. But they also serve a practical purpose for the artists involved in bringing them exposure to a captive audience.

From the iconic magician painting that greets visitors to rotating exhibits of local art, it’s all but impossible to pass through SEA without getting a taste of local art.

But there’s nothing new about this tradition: The Port of Seattle was actually the region’s first public agency to establish a public art collection. Currently, the port is working to broaden the diversity of this collection by commissioning new projects from Indigenous artists, LGBTQIA+ makers, and Black artists.

And even during the pandemic, SEA kept the arts alive, streaming airport musicians’ performances across the country through an initiative called the Jetstream Music Festival.

A lifeline during COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, SEA has been an essential conduit for health resources and support, facilitating the transport of crucial medical supplies, including vaccines. Traveling Emergency Room nurse Kayla Bet also recounted her experiences, highlighting SEA's role in her pandemic journey.

In the middle of her travel nurse rotation in Sacramento when the pandemic began, Bet found herself in a challenging environment. It was hard being isolated across the country from family with so many unknowns while working with COVID-19 patients in a hospital. Returning to Seattle in September 2020 for a new assignment, Bet noted the emphasis on safety at SEA. "I felt very good about it. The airport felt very safe.”

As public health measures kicked in to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, SEA adapted swiftly to shifting  health protocols, ensuring the safety of travelers and employees through enhanced cleaning procedures, social distancing measures, and clear communication to passengers.

A SeaTac worker cleans an escalator in a mask
An airport worker cleans an escalator. (Courtesy of Port of Seattle)


“At SEA, I was surprised to see a lot of people traveling, but everyone had masks on,” said blogger Angela Kim of these protocols. “Even when we were waiting by the gate, everyone was trying to stay six feet away. There were hand sanitizers everywhere that I used frequently, and it was always stocked. The bathrooms were clean and there were social distancing signs everywhere.”

Kim had been nervous about going through security checkpoints, but even that went smoothly, she said.The whole experience made her feel confident about air travel, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, SEA also played a critical role in keeping essential supplies  moving. The airport's cargo operations transported masks, medical supplies and even fresh seafood and cherries, keeping local businesses and health care providers going. As SEA managing director Lance Lyttle put it: "SEA was crucial in maintaining supply chains and supporting the economy during a very tough period."

A cutting-edge airport for a growing high-tech region

In recent years, SEA has undergone significant renovations to serve passengers even more effectively. Major projects include the new International Arrivals Facility and the expansion and modernization of the North Satellite terminal. Today, SEA is ranked as the ninth busiest U.S. airport and is King County’s fifth largest employer, serving millions of passengers and handling hundreds of thousands of tons of air cargo annually — it’s come a long way since the early days of serving just four local airlines

As we celebrate SEA’s 75th (diamond!) anniversary, we look forward to a bright future filled with even more innovation and new ways to support  our community. As Seattle continues to grow and evolve, the airport's continued growth and modernization ensure it will remain a vital hub for travelers and businesses alike, connecting Seattle to the world.