Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Portland International Airport preparing for takeoff

PDX’s $2 billion in projects are a running start toward serving the passengers of the future

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:
5 Photos
An Alaska Airlines jet taxis behind the Concourse E extension at Portland International Airport. The project, scheduled for completion in June 2020, is part of a $2 billion package of PDX improvements.
An Alaska Airlines jet taxis behind the Concourse E extension at Portland International Airport. The project, scheduled for completion in June 2020, is part of a $2 billion package of PDX improvements. Photos by nathan howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

PORTLAND — Last decade, Portland International Airport suffered two gut punches, first the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then the economic meltdown that became known as the Great Recession.

The airport has recovered nicely. With today’s burly economy, the airport is now building a series of improvements, PDXNext, that represent a $2 billion investment in the airport’s future.

“We have a significant amount of work in front of us over the next five to seven years,” said Vince Granato, Port of Portland’s chief operating officer. “We are going to be really focused on delivering those projects.”

In 2010, when the economy was still limping, the Port of Portland and other local governments adopted an airport master plan that projected a 2.3 percent annual growth rate and 27 million annual passengers by 2035.

Although passenger growth in recent years has topped forecasts, PDX managers say the 2010 plan has been remarkably accurate as they work to enhance airport operations.

21 Photos
Passengers wait at a gate in Concourse A, which will be demolished starting this fall as part of a project to remodel and expand Concourse B.
Gallery: Portland International Airport Photo Gallery

“A lot of what’s happening now with PDXNext is accommodating the passengers of the future,” said Kama Simonds, the Port of Portland’s aviation media relations manager.

Barring another economic crash or a big spike in fuel costs, PDX should easily break the 20-million-passenger threshold for the first time this year.

Flexibility for future

The terminal, which opened in 1958, has received assorted improvements over the years. Granato said it needs a major face-lift to provide flexibility for future needs.

“It is not really designed for how the traveling public goes through an airport anymore,” he said.

All construction will be done to meet growth projections while the airport moves 50,000 or more passengers a day.

“You can’t wait until you have the passengers, because these projects don’t happen overnight,” Simonds said.

Airlines approve and pay for concourse improvements, but that won’t necessarily result in higher fares for PDX flyers because ticket prices are set on the macro level by airlines, Simonds said.

Rental car companies and parking patrons will pay for other improvements through user fees. The Port of Portland collects property taxes in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, but none of that revenue goes to PDX improvements, Simonds said.

“The folks who use the facility end up paying for the facility,” she said.

Some PDXNext projects, such as improving rental car operations, aren’t as splashy as extending a concourse or opening new restaurants but remain an important part to operating a user-friendly airport.

PDX has consistently heard from customers who don’t want to take a shuttle to their rental car, Simonds said. When a consolidated garage for rental cars and the public opens in late 2021, 100 percent of rental car operations will be located on-site, she said.

30th-busiest airport

PDX remains a modest-sized airport. According to Federal Aviation Administration statistics, it was the nation’s 30th-busiest airport for passenger departures in 2017.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest for passenger travel since 1999, handled 107.4 million departing and arriving passengers last year, more than five times Portland’s total.

PDX managers say their airport may be far from the biggest, but it ranks at the top for amenities, customer service and all-around satisfaction.

Travel + Leisure magazine has rated PDX as the nation’s top airport for six consecutive years. Money magazine ranked the airport No. 1 this year and No. 2 in 2018. Last September, J.D. Power ranked PDX third among similarly sized airports.

Portland’s airport typically scores high for customer comfort, including the number and variety of restaurants, bars and shops and the availability of Wi-Fi. PDX also offers a spa, barbershop and even a small 17-seat cinema showing free G-rated short films in Concourse C.

New, resuming service

Granato said he rarely hears complaints about Transportation Security Administration lines, a common traveler irritation at other airports. A more frequent complaint or request, he said, is for direct connections to specific destinations, something the airlines determine.

Additional connections are coming to PDX. During the next two months, Sun Country Airlines will begin domestic service to Nashville, Tenn., San Antonio and St. Louis.

Other airlines will resume international flights for the upcoming summer travel season. Icelandair restarted service to Reykjavik, Iceland, last month. Condor will again offer flights to Frankfurt, Germany, beginning May 5, and Delta Air Lines will resume service to London on May 9.

Although PDX sees a holiday spike, its busiest days are in the summer, not before or after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The airport handles about 51,000 passengers on an average day this time of year and 57,000 a day during spring break, but that can shoot up to 75,000 passengers during peak summer travel days, Simonds said.

“Our 10 busiest days of any recent year happen in the summer,” she said.

Future challenges

Granato said his biggest question marks for the future are autonomous vehicles, transit and other transportation issues.

“People are still going to need to fly in Portland,” he said. “It’s really how they get to the airport.”

Uber and Lyft have added more vehicles to PDX’s roads for departures and arrivals. The airport will allow ride-hailing services to continue to drop off passengers at the terminal but intends to steer pickups to the first floor of the parking garages once it has been vacated by rental cars.

One change that consumers should not expect anytime soon is construction of a second terminal or a third east-west runway.

Sean Loughran, aviation planning manager for the Port of Portland, said when the current master plan was adopted in 2010, planners opted to go with a centralized terminal concept. That means a second terminal won’t even be considered until after the current planning horizon ends in 2035.

Loughran, who managed Vancouver’s Pearson Field for three years before moving to the Port of Portland in September 2007, said a third east-west runway won’t be needed until PDX has at least a half-million flights a year.

“We’re not even halfway there,” he said.


Five projects for PDX’s future needs

PDXNext is a series of expansions, remodels and other improvements designed to improve travel for the airport’s 20 million annual passengers.

 Concourse E extension: The concourse, on the north side of the terminal, is being extended 830 feet to the east. Six gates and nine concessionaires are set to open in June 2020. Southwest Airlines will move to Concourse E, freeing up room for Alaska Airlines and other carriers in Concourse C, on the terminal’s south side extending west. Currently, about 70 percent of passengers use Concourse C, which is why this project also is referred to as “terminal balancing.” Cost: $215 million.

 Quick turnaround facility: This two-story structure fuels, washes and stores rental cars and includes an elaborate system to reuse wash water and capture rainwater. The facility, which can fuel and clean up to 430 cars an hour, opened in March 2018 and is the only PDXNext project completed. Cost: $67 million.

 Consolidated rental car facility and parking garage: The first two levels of the short-term garage closest to the terminal are used by rental cars. Rental cars will be moved to a new parking garage, under construction south and east of the long-term garage, which will allow more public parking in the existing short-term garage, as well as inside the future 2,450-space garage. The structure is designed so its internal configuration can be adjusted for future needs. Construction is scheduled to be completed in late 2021. Cost: $282 million.

Portland International Airport, by the numbers

Size: Approximately 3,200 acres.

Gates: 45 with jet bridges, plus 12 ground-loading locations where passengers walk out to the plane. Six more gates should be available in summer 2020.

Flights: Nearly 234,000 takeoffs and landings in 2018, including passenger, cargo and military aircraft.

Passengers: 19.9 million departing and arriving passengers in 2018.

Biggest airlines: Alaska Airlines moved 26.4 percent of PDX’s passengers in 2018, followed by Southwest Airlines with 17.7 percent.

Parking: 14,200 spaces, plus another 2,450 spaces for travelers and rental cars scheduled to open in late 2021.

Employees: 10,000, with about 30 percent living in Southwest Washington.

Tips for travelers

Always check your flight’s status before heading to the airport. Many airlines have apps that allow you to get flight updates, create mobile boarding passes and take other steps to ease travel hassles.

• If you plan on parking, check the airport’s website, www.flypdx.com/parking, before leaving. PDX officials say they have never completely run out of parking, but you may not get your first choice during peak periods because a garage or lot is full.

You can use either Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at PDX. If the one closest to your concourse has a long line, use the other station and take the concourse connector to reach your gate.

If you are being picked up during busy arrival times, such as in the evening, have your ride meet you upstairs on the departing flight roadway. You could be rewarded with less congestion and aggravation.

Did You Know?

In 1930, the Port of Portland built the city’s first municipal airport on Swan Island.

Portland voters approved a $300,000 bond issue in 1935 to purchase 700 acres east of the city for a new airport.

• The airport took four years to build, with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration providing 80 percent of the $2.94 million construction cost.

About 2,000 people gathered on Oct. 13, 1940, for the formal dedication of what was then called Portland-Columbia Airport.

The airport’s first arrival, a United Airlines flight from Oakland, Calif., landed early the next morning.

• PDX’s first commercial jet, a Pan American Boeing 707, touched down on Oct. 2, 1959.

— Jeff Mize

 Concourses A/B redevelopment:Concourse A, on the terminal’s south side and extending east, will be demolished beginning this fall. Concourse B will be extended to the east and provide a better experience for passengers in terms of concessions, cellphone charging stations, seating and amenities. There will continue to be some ground loading in the expanded Concourse B, where people walk out to the plane rather than using a jet bridge. Completion is scheduled for summer 2021. Cost: $100 million.

 Terminal expansion/remodel: The terminal will be extended about 150 feet to the west, freeing up room for expanded Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, additional concessionaires and updated amenities. A second phase will include improvements to the ticketing lobby in the terminal’s front. Construction tentatively scheduled to begin in 2020 and finish in 2025. Cost: more than $1 billion.

Columbian staff reporter
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