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The Other Sea-Tac Passenger
Cargo was a key part of Sea-Tac’s business right from the start. In 1950, the first year of full operations, 6,000 tons of cargo traveled through the new airport along with 130,000 passengers. All of that was “belly” cargo, carried on passenger aircraft. The concept of using the bellies of passenger planes and later “cargo-only” carriers for high quality, low-weight freight as well as for highly perishable imports and exports was here to stay and grow.
We’ve Got Mail
An early factor in the growth of air cargo at Sea-Tac was mail. In 1956, the U.S. Post Office designated Sea-Tac as the airport for shipping first-class airmail from all points west of the Mississippi to Asia. Construction of an airmail facility the next year cemented the deal, and the escalation of the Vietnam War grew this special cargo almost 30 percent from just 1967 to 1968. As quickly as mail shipments rose, they dropped with the end of the war, the increasing use of truck and rail to move mail, and the later move of the mail processing center to San Francisco.
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Cargo-only services arrived at Sea-Tac in 1952 with Flying Tiger Airlines. It was the only freighter airline until the 1970s when two other cargo-only carriers arrived. Today Sea-Tac is served by seven scheduled freighter airlines and 22 passenger airlines with belly service. (Learn more about cargo at Sea-Tac today.)
As air freight grew from that first 6,000 tons to the more than quarter-million tons that now passes through Sea-Tac yearly, cargo facilities have popped up both north and south of the Main Terminal. The first cargo building went up northeast of the terminal in 1954. Today there are some 20 facilities at Sea-Tac devoted to cargo. (See map)
While air freight at Sea-Tac largely has been predictable cargo such as perishable crops like fresh fish and cut flowers, high tech products and needed parts for Boeing aircraft across the world, there have been some odd ones as well. Eight hundred pair of breeding pigeons made their way from Sea-Tac to dinner tables in the People’s Republic of China in 1986. That year China sent us an interesting shipment as well – a pair of golden monkeys from Chongqing, Seattle’s sister city. Yang (aka Sunshine) and Hong (aka Rainbow) were a popular sight during their three-month stay at Woodland Park Zoo. Golden monkeys have long golden hair; blue faces and coal black eyes.
Until recently, cattle and horses were shipped to Asia via air. And occasionally this feisty cargo would escape and a western-style roundup was needed to keep them off the airfield.
Even some of today’s common cargo is a bit surprising. Every summer some 25 to 30 million pounds of Northwest cherries are shipped to Korea and Taiwan for cherry-loving customers throughout Asia; and another Northwest delicacy – geoduck – is hugely popular in Asia with up to 20,000 pounds shipped from Sea-Tac every season.
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