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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

April 6, 2013 at 7:55 PM

The next tech at Sea-Tac: Airport WiFi and power outlets are just the beginning

VIDEO: Sea-Tac Airport chief technologist David Wilson on WiFi, self-service and the airport’s tech priorities:

I know technology is getting better at the airport because I’m spending less and less time sitting on the floor.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has installed 432 new power outlets around the gates since 2011. It expects to add 564 more through 2014, plus another 24 in ticketing and bag-claim areas. The new outlets are on airport charging tables or just under the seats and — along with airlines’ own passenger charging stations — are preventing messy, tripwire campsites from forming around outlets on posts and walls.

To think. Those used to be for vacuum cleaners.

Planes take off and land at Sea-Tac well enough. But the top customer-service complaints here, as in most American airports, aren’t about travel, but technology. Connectivity used to be the biggest sticking point, but after Sea-Tac introduced free Wi-Fi in 2010, the crowd has craved juice.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” David Wilson told me. “The more Wi-Fi you have, the more power you need.”

It’s Wilson’s job, as the airport’s chief technologist, to juggle the needs of airlines and passengers, anticipate what we want before we want it, and race against the pace of technology to provide it. (That’s in addition to wrangling 180 systems in a monster facility where about 20,000 people work and the equivalent of the population of Bellevue passes through daily.)

Other airports might lag behind a trend or two. But this is Seattle. Like many of its residents, Sea-Tac aims to be an early adopter.

Wi-Fi and power are just the beginning.

In the airport’s basement, several doors down from its emergency and communications control rooms, is the lab. There, airlines test their latest check-in, ticketing and baggage“apps” on the same hardware you see on the main floors. The neatest thing here is something Wilson got in the last month— a large machine that looks like the boxes that take your tickets on city subways. A self-boarding gate.

The airport of the future, Wilson told me on a tour here last week, is self-everything. You check in from home, plop your bag on a self-bag-check belt, wait at the gate, and get yourself on the plane. Airport agents help out when you need them. Otherwise, you’re in control.

Well, most of the time. The airport can’t do a thing about (shudder) security. That’s TSA territory. But it can help you decide how to tackle it. Imagine sensors that calculate how long the wait is at each security checkpoint and beam the time to your smartphone. You can choose where to park based on which checkpoint you want to pass.

Wilson has been with the airport 10 years. In that time, smartphones have changed everything about how airports look ahead. Today it’s your sometime assistant. Tomorrow it will be your full-service travel concierge. In-airport GPS and “geo-fencing” will tell you that the next coffee shop is around the corner and notify you when there’s a delay or when you have just enough time to walk to the gate for boarding. New signage will help. Forget backlit paper. In Wilson’s world, every sign within reach is a touch screen.

“Won’t that be cool?” he said.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had shown up with blinders on. I thought upgrades to airport Wi-Fi and power would be just for us new-age travelers who can’t be anywhere more than five minutes without plugging in. Far from it. A high-capacity network is Wilson’s top priority, not only because we want it, but because it’s the foundation of what the airport needs to become.

How he gets it isn’t a question of disruption, but opportunity. Want Sea-Tac’s strongest Wi-Fi? It’s in Concourse D — for now. When renovations begin in Concourse A, workers will install newer, stronger plumbing there. And so on and so forth as construction projects tear up different parts of the airport and as Wi-Fi access points — relatively cheap at a couple grand each — cover more and more ground. The airport’s earliest Wi-Fi split off from cellular antennas. By 2018, Wilson wants fiber and copper at every gate.

You might expect airports out of here or in Silicon Valley to be at the top of the tech. But Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport remains a leader. Why? Revenue. It has a self-boarding gate or two at its new terminal, and already installed Wi-Fi in a place where Sea-Tac is still wondering how to add it — the ramps. The airport runs its own slot machines, for heaven’s sake.

Revenue envy aside, Wilson has his road map, and he isn’t worried. Sea-Tac saw its largest passenger volume ever last year, 33.2 million, ticking it up a spot to make it the nation’s 15th-largest airport. If all goes well, flying through Sea-Tac should get faster and easier in the next several years.

As for the immediate future, officials swear more charging stations and power-outlet seating are coming to a gate near you. And they all but promise the free Wi-Fi is going to stay free, even as many airports move to paid sign-on or sketchy“freemium” models. We probably wouldn’t stand for anything else, they implied.

This is Seattle. They’re probably right.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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