Wheels Down at Sea-Tac

Wheels Down at Sea-Tac


It’s a raw, chilly December morning at Sea-Tac. The Uber waiting lot is just high enough on the hill for a sightline to Rainier, wreathed in heavy clouds. The steady roar of planes taking off and coming in for landings makes everyone lean in a bit closer and shout a bit louder in conversation. 

Nearly every space in the waiting lot is filled by a Toyota Prius, along with one or two other hybrid models. On a warm summer evening, groups of drivers might be sitting on crates playing cards, snacking on takeout food, or praying to the east. Today, most people are in their cars, staying warm and keeping an eye on their number in the queue for pickup requests.

A few hardy souls are out stretching their legs and catching up with friends, their hands emerging from jacket pockets for a quick handshake. Here are a few of the people we met.

Christina Greaves has led Uber’s Sea-Tac Operations team. An engineer and supply chain manager, Greaves sees big opportunities to improve the airport experience for everyone, especially drivers.

Is ridesharing at Sea-Tac different than other airports?

I’m learning that every airport is unique, but they’re all challenging spaces for ground transportation. Sea-Tac is one of the fastest growing airports in the country. But without more real estate that can be developed to accommodate traditional growth, solving the physical bottlenecks requires innovation.

Uber has only been operating at Sea-Tac for two years, which is a short time compared to other North American airports. And it’s complicated, because Uber wants to move quickly while also cooperating with airports, which are public institutions that move deliberately, weighing policies and controlled change. These are two extremes still learning to work together.

How has ridesharing at airports evolved? Where is it headed?

Uber has seen rapid growth in most airports with ridesharing. At the same time, traditional sources of revenue for airports are seeing different trends. Revenue from parking has been going down. 

At Sea-Tac, we have the opportunity to gather feedback from drivers and use it to drive change. Today, the pickup area for riders is double the space we had at the start, with better signage. We collaborated with the airport to number signs for each driver parking space. And we completed research on the traffic flows of the lot, which resulted in a successful restriping proposal. 

We’re dedicated to supporting all the involved parties in building toward a shared goal of efficient ridesharing for drivers and riders. There’s still lots more to learn and do.

How do you know the right ways to improve ridesharing at Sea-Tac?

For us, drivers’ viewpoints have been essential for helping everyone understand what their experience is like, as we worked to open a new waiting lot space with better amenities. Drivers helped us appreciate that the waiting lot is a social space. When you’ve been on the road for hours, simply finding an accessible bathroom can be challenging. So, drivers aren’t just queuing for a ride request. They want to stretch, use a clean bathroom, and catch up with other drivers who are friends.

Photos: David Keller

Adam Williams is a member of Uber’s brand experience and UX research teams. A cultural geographer, Adam previously lived and worked in Shanghai, where he studied China’s informal recycling communities.