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Alaska cruise industry buoys Seattle economy
Tacoma News Tribune


April 10, 2007

SEATTLE, Wash. -- Outside the north end of Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport ticket hall, a cavernous green-and-white-striped tent stands empty but ready for an annual human migration.

Beginning in early May, thousands of Alaska cruise ship passengers will turn the tent into a bazaar of activity three days a week as they rush to check in for their airline journeys home.

As recently as eight years ago, the number of cruise ship passengers beginning and ending their voyages in Seattle was a statistical trickle, just 6,615, hardly enough to justify a fair-weather temporary addition to the air terminal.

But in recent years that dribble has swelled to a torrent as changes in the cruise industry, in ship technology and international politics have put the Puget Sound area on the cruising map.

This year, the International Council of Cruise Lines predicts the cruise business could inject nearly $750 million into the Washington economy.

Seattle had always been a center for cruise line business, but few ships called there until recent years.

Stanley McDonald, whom many in the industry call the father of the modern cruise industry, started Princess Cruises in Seattle in the '60s, chartering an ocean liner for excursions during the Seattle World's Fair. Though Princess moved to California after it was bought out, its land tour arm, Princess Tours, is based in Seattle.

Three other cruise lines - Holland America Lines, Majestic America Cruises and Windstar Cruises - have headquarters in Seattle, though Windstar recently was sold.

The shock of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made cruise passengers apprehensive about foreign ports, so cruise lines scheduled more cruises to Alaska.

Vancouver, the traditional jumping-off point for Alaska cruises, couldn't handle all the traffic, so Seattle became the first alternative. Once cruise industry managers tried Seattle, they liked the results and stayed, even as the anxiety over flying subsided.

The positive business effect of the growing cruise industry helps fill the pockets not just of ships' suppliers, but also of allied travel industry companies, such as bus and tour firms, hotels and rental car agencies.

"It's just huge for us," said Brad Walker, Alaska Airlines' director of leisure marketing.

Alaska counts on the year's second and third quarters, the high tourist season in Alaska, to be its most profitable. The cruise industry plays a big part of that.

As the airline with the largest share of traffic at Sea-Tac and as the dominant airline in the 49th state, Alaska ramps up its schedule to handle the extra loads of tourists coming to the Northwest to begin their cruises. The airline also increases its number of flights to and from Alaska, where cruise passengers on longer itineraries begin or end their trips.

In the summer, for instance, Alaska schedules 20 flights a day between Seattle and Anchorage.

The airline works closely with cruise lines and tour operators to offer their customers a package that includes air travel.

While the cruise season enhances airlines' returns, handling the surges of traffic that occur when cruise ship passengers arrive or leave require special measures, such as the green-and-white "cruise tent."

Sea-Tac Airport director Mark Reis said seven airlines are stationing extra personnel in the tent to handle the waves of passengers that hit the airport on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Cruise vessels operate on tight schedules. Typically, they return from Alaska early in the morning. Most of them unload their 2,000 or so passengers within a two-hour period from about 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Most of them then head to the airport for flights home.

With three vessels calling on Saturday and Sunday each week and two on Friday, on essentially identical schedules, the passengers hit the airport check-in lines during a narrow window of time.

"From about 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., you've got a big crowd that needs to be processed, their bags checked and sent on to security," Reis said.

Alaska brings in eight additional agents to work in the cruise tent during those hours, said Ron Calvin, Alaska's Seattle customer service manager. "We try to make it as seamless an experience as possible," he said.

If the airlines tried to handle that wave of customers in the regular ticketing lobby, the ticketing hall would be shoulder to shoulder with travelers.

A new service called Bag Check, available to many cruise passengers for $10 a bag, offers to check their bags on the ship, transport them to the airport and hand them over to the airlines. That frees cruise passengers, some of whom are elderly, from the hassle of moving their heavy bags through the check-in lines.

The port also provides a motorized cart to haul passengers who may have trouble walking from the check-in tent to the terminal, where they can obtain wheelchairs if necessary, Reis said.

Seattle Cruise Ship Traffic

Year -- Ships -- Passengers

1999 -- 6 -- 6,615

2000 -- 36 -- 120,000

2001 -- 59 -- 170,500

2002-- 75 -- 245,000

2003 -- 99 -- 345,000

2004 -- 148 -- 562,000

2005 -- 169 -- 686,400

2006 -- 196 -- 751,000

2007* -- 191-- 826,00 * Figures estimated

Source: Port of Seattle

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